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Bibi and the Lost Boys

Can Netanyahu find Israel's three kidnapped teenagers without destroying his own government and tearing the West Bank apart?

David Buimovith/Pool/Getty Images
David Buimovith/Pool/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel — For the past two weeks, the top story in Israel hasn’t been the jihadist gains in Iraq or the World Cup. Rather, Israelis have been gripped by the saga of three Israeli teenagers who were abducted near a West Bank settlement on June 12 and have not been heard from since.

Israel has a unique weakness for abduction scenarios. Sadly, the names of victims of suicide bombing attacks and drive-by shootings in the West Bank are quickly forgotten. Not so for kidnappings: Hostages become heroes here, their photographs printed on T-shirts and their fate discussed in around-the-clock news broadcasts. This attitude may be a relic of an older era, when many Israelis saw themselves as members of a society in constant struggle, still fighting for its survival.

It may also represent a national addiction to high-stakes, emotional drama — complete with the required TV camera close-up of a hostage’s mother wiping the tears off her face. Hostages are treated in Israel almost as cultural icons, collective sons for a public that has long been divided on almost every other issue, from how to resolve the Palestinian conflict to the separation of religion and state.

This attention spells bad news for one Israeli in particular: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not only does his government face growing demands from right-wing politicians to act tough against terror, he risks provoking a crisis with the Palestinian Authority (PA) that could jeopardize the security cooperation painstakingly built up since the Second Intifada. 

With every day that passes, the hope of returning the boys safely diminishes — and Netanyahu finds himself in an ever-tighter corner. On Tuesday, June 24, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, said that the military was still working on the assumption that the boys were alive, "but with the passage of time, fears grow."

The huge manhunt has been hindered by poor police oversight. The policemen who handled the emergency call from one of the boys failed to alert their commanders promptly, and the kidnappers were able to travel freely across the West Bank for almost 10 hours.

The kidnapping has sparked a crisis between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. In addition to the search for the teenagers, Israel declared a new campaign against Hamas and arrested more than 300 of its members in the West Bank. While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the incident, the Netanyahu government claims that this is not enough and has demanded that Fatah disband the national unity government it established with Hamas in May.

Since the end of the Second Intifada, around 2005, Israelis have grown to expect a success rate of almost 95 percent in stopping terrorist attacks before they occur. Most terror suspects in the West Bank are either arrested before they manage to do anything, or immediately thereafter. A major reason for this success has been the very close cooperation between Israel and Palestinian security officials — a relationship both sides prefer to keep as low-profile as possible. But the failure to locate the kidnapped boys has led to growing public anger, which intensifies the political pressure on Netanyahu to take harsher steps against Hamas and even against the PA.

Benjamin Netanyahu has always billed himself as just the man to confront attacks like this one. He became a public figure in Israeli life on July 4, 1976, when his older brother Yoni, the commander of the IDF’s top commando unit, was killed while leading the operation to release more than 100 Israeli hostages of an Air France plane that was hijacked and flown to the Entebbe airport in Uganda. The Israeli commandos flew over 2,500 miles to complete the mission, which is still considered one of the most successful rescue operations in history.

Benjamin, himself a former officer at the same unit, entered politics as an expert on fighting the sort of terrorists who claimed his brother’s life. He published books and made speeches demanding a more coordinated international campaign against terror groups. For many years, part of his appeal to the Israeli right has been his family’s legacy and his tough rhetoric against terrorism.

But once Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the first time, in 1996, his principles clashed with reality — he shook hands with his longtime foe, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, three months into his term. And in 2009, after Netanyahu made his political comeback, his new counterterror approach again managed to antagonize his former allies on the right.

His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left him with an unsolved problem: Gilad Shalit, the soldier who had been abducted by Hamas in Gaza three years earlier. In October 2011, facing huge pressure from the Israeli public and the media, Netanyahu gave in: In an unprecedented deal, he agreed to release 1,027 prisoners, among them dozens of Hamas operatives who were charged with murdering more than 600 Israelis.

Netanyahu knew the recidivism statistics showing that more than 60 percent of former prisoners returned to terrorist activity. But he was also acutely aware of public opinion polls, which showed that Israeli voters were quickly losing their patience with him after a long summer of huge demonstrations demanding social and economic justice. Netanyahu’s political instincts won out.

While the Shalit deal was supported by the majority of Israelis at the time, it has come back to haunt Netanyahu. Immediately after the recent abduction of the teenagers, the premier was embarrassed when a Palestinian released as part of the deal was charged in the murder of an Israeli police officer. It was the first such case of its kind, and a prime example for Netanyahu’s hard-line rivals of why the compromise for Shalit was a mistake.

The Israeli right’s trust that Netanyahu was the man to deal with another hostage crisis was therefore already at its nadir before the current kidnapping. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing religious party Jewish Home, forced Netanyahu to pass a law through the government that would forbid amnesty for terrorists sentenced for murder — a condition that would make prisoner swaps extremely difficult. The fact that the families of all three current hostages are identified with Bennett’s political camp only intensifies the pressure on the government.

Netanyahu appears determined this time around not to duplicate the problems that the Shalit deal posed for him. After the boys were kidnapped, Netanyahu anounced a far-reaching campaign against Hamas: 58 of the prisoners affiliated with the militant Islamist group who had been released in the Shalit deal were arrested again, and the IDF raided dozens of offices connected to the organization’s political and financial wings. The army recommended stopping the raids on most Palestinian towns by the middle of the week, warning that more incursions could lead to unnecessary Palestinian casualties. It suggested that the operation should focus again on its original goal — finding the teenagers and their kidnappers. Netanyahu accepted his generals’ advice.

Contrary to his image abroad, Netanyahu tends to be rather cautious when applying military force. But since chances for a safe release of the hostages now seem slight, the Israeli prime minister finds himself with his back up against a wall. Discovery of the boys’ bodies would spark a new wave of public anger on the right and among settlers, while no breakthrough in the operation would increase political demands for even tougher action.

Under such pressure, Netanyahu might even feel the need to consider a renewal of targeted assassinations against Hamas militants in Gaza. The crisis is far from over — for Netanyahu, trapped between images of Enttebe and the Shalit deal, there is still no end in sight.

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