Benjamin Netanyahu Lashes Out at Hamas — But Real Enemy Is Elsewhere

Securocrats Say Some Threats Managable — Danger Is Jihad

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 19, 2014, issue of June 27, 2014.
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On Monday evening, June 9, just hours after Brun’s speech, some 800 Sunni fighters of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Riding on pickup trucks, they routed two U.S.-trained divisions of the mostly-Shi’ite Iraqi army. Thirty thousand soldiers fled, most on foot, abandoning millions of dollars in advanced American weaponry. Hundreds who ran too slowly were massacred. ISIS then stormed the Turkish consulate, kidnapping the consul, 24 staffers and an unknown number of family members.

The event landed on the world’s front pages like a nuclear blast, shattering a century of assumptions about the Middle East. For America it was humiliating: the utter collapse of a goal, a terror-free Iraq, that had guided U.S. foreign policy since 2001, at a cost of trillions of dollars and 4,000 American lives. For Iraq’s neighbors it was catastrophic: the threat of a jihadi terrorist state on their doorstep, stretching across Iraq and Syria, contemptuous of international norms, bent on global Islamic revolution.

Most immediately threatened was the Shi’ite government in Baghdad. It was supposed to have evolved in the democratic image of America. Instead it looked increasingly like an Iranian asset. Facing jihadi onslaught, though, those distinctions paled. ISIS made allies not just of Islamist Turkey and “moderate” Saudi Arabia but even radical Iran and democratic America. Brun’s scenario was Netanyahu’s nightmare.

Three days later, on Thursday, June 12, a crisis of a different order erupted: three Israeli teenagers kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank. The event hit Israeli society in the gut, evoking traumatic memories of the long captivity of Gilad Shalit and aviator Ron Arad. Israelis could talk about little else for days. It seemed the boys’ disappearance had reunited Israel into the big family it was years ago.

Israel’s security services went into overdrive. Troops searched from house to house in and around Hebron, near the kidnapping site. Dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives were rounded up in the search for evidence.

Early clues pointed to Hebron-based Hamas activists. Intelligence experts speculated that it was a rogue cell, out to scuttle the two-week old Hamas-Fatah reconciliation pact or perhaps join up with global jihadists. Hamas itself, broke and internationally isolated, had seized on reconciliation as a lifeline, they argued, and had no motive to jeopardize it. In the great three-dimensional chess game, Islamism was crawling toward the moderates.

But that wasn’t how Netanyahu saw it. Within hours he was publicly calling the kidnapping a product of the reconciliation pact (ignoring the fact that kidnapping attempts were occurring weekly for the past year, long before reconciliation). By Sunday, as evidence of some Hamas link firmed up, arrests grew from a few dozen in Hebron to hundreds throughout the West Bank, including nearly the entire Hamas leadership.

Monday evening Netanyahu addressed a brief press conference, flanked by Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, and acknowledged what was already obvious: The search for the boys was now a full-scale crackdown on Hamas. No need to wait for firm evidence of who’s responsible. “Hamas,” Yaalon said, “will pay a heavy price.”

The concern wasn’t just military. Netanyahu, it appeared, was alarmed — indeed, furious — at the creeping reclassification of Hamas from jihad to political Islamism. Close to half his four-minute remarks were spent denouncing “elements in the international community” that hadn’t condemned the kidnapping and endorsed Israel’s counterattack. Hebron was no different from Mosul. “Anyone who opposes terror must condemn terror everywhere,” he said. Jihad, Islamism, Shia radicalism — they’re all the same thing.

Gantz, speaking after him, could only shrug his shoulders. Speaking barely a minute, he expressed sympathy for the kidnap victims and praised his troops’ dedication. “They remember their job,” he said. “To defend the state of Israel and to act in the name of the government of Israel and achieve all assigned objectives.” Put differently: Don’t blame me. I just do what these guys tell me to do.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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