In a region already in flames, a Palestinian terror attack and Netanyahu’s response could light another fire

My latest column is up at The American Prospect

Gershom Gorenberg

Life in Israel in recent months has been preternaturally tranquil, as long as you keep no more than a quarter of an ear on the news. Jerusalem cafés are packed. If you take a summer hike in the Galilee, nothing in the mountain breeze reminds you that a few dozen kilometers to the east is a failed state called Syria, where a war of all against all has driven nearly half the population from their homes, or that the realm of chaos extends all the way through Iraq.

For that matter, the land on the other side of Israel’s northern border is best described as Hezbollah territory, even if maps show a state called Lebanon there. Across the border in the south, the Sinai is a battleground between jihadist rebels and the Egyptian government. Jordan is still a functioning state—unless the fighting in Iraq and Syria spills over its borders. Feeling calm in Israel is like sipping lemonade in your living room while your neighborhood is in flames.

In truth, Israelis have actually had their ears entirely, obsessively on the news since the kidnapping of three teenage Israeli hitchhikers in the West Bank two weeks ago. The greeting, “Is there news?” means, “Have they been found? Are they alive? ” While the Shin Bet security service released the names of two suspects yesterday, which it identified as known members of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement, neither they nor the victims have been located. What’s clear is that the both kidnapping itself and the Israeli government’s reaction threaten to bring the fire much closer to home.

The abduction was an act of terror—an overused word, but still necessary to describe a real evil. In the simplest sense of “terror,” this was an assault on innocent civilians for political purposes.

If the perpetrators are holding the three teens as live hostages, the immediate goal is clear: to trade them for a large number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. It’s an old tactic. But as they condemn it, many of Netanyahu’s domestic critics correctly note that his decisions have amplified the motivation to use it. In 2011, Netanyahu reached a deal with Hamas to release more than 1,000 prisoners, many of them convicted murderers, in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in Gaza for five years. From Shalit’s release, Netanyahu gained a short-term boost in popularity and, perhaps by a coincidence of timing, a national celebration that helped deflate protests against his economic policies.

This spring, on the other hand, Netanyahu refused to carry out the last stage of a much smaller release to which he’d agreed as part of the American-backed peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That’s when the talks collapsed. The all-too-easy conclusion for some Palestinians was that Abbas’s diplomacy failed to free prisoners and that Hamas’s violence worked. …

Read the rest here.