Editorial Board

Benjamin Netanyahu, Statesman?

With a single phone call, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made possible the de-escalation of the current bout of Israeli-Palestinian violence, but the question remains whether he can build on that action.
Acting like a true prime minister.

In a conflict as entrenched and hate-filled as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, there will always be people eager to make the worst of a horrific situation. Sometimes leadership consists of the simple act of resisting that impulse.

Today, with a single phone call, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has displayed that vital quality. The question now is how he can build on it -- and whether it will be reciprocated by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The latest trouble began with the kidnapping June 12 of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, which Israel blamed on the militant group Hamas but for which Hamas denied responsibility. In its response, the Israeli military killed seven Palestinians and arrested around 400, including most of Hamas's West Bank leaders. When the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers were found June 30, Netanyahu called their killers "wild beasts" and vowed, "Hamas will pay."

Yet the next victim was not Hamas but a Palestinian teenager, kidnapped in front of an East Jerusalem mosque and found soon after bludgeoned and burned alive. Six Israelis have been arrested for the murder.

The killing sparked the worst riots among Israel's Arab citizens since 2000. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian militants took the opportunity to fire rockets into Israel. The Israeli military then struck Hamas targets in Gaza, provoking more Palestinian rockets, provoking more Israeli airstrikes, which have so far killed 12 Palestinians.

Amid the riots and crossfire, Netanyahu acted to calm things down. In a remarkable move for an Israeli prime minister, especially from the right wing, he placed a condolence call to the family of the slain Palestinian youth, calling his murder "abhorrent" and promising to prosecute the killers to the fullest extent of the law.

It was a deed Abbas would be wise to model. The Palestinian leader has condemned the killing of the Israeli boys, but given his political partnership with Hamas, which in its charter calls for the destruction of the Israeli state, many Israelis doubt his sincerity.

Many Palestinians no doubt question Netanyahu's motives as well. But at least he has acted. Abbas's government should aspire to the efficiency with which the Israelis apprehended their murder suspects. Granted, Palestinian officials don't have the technological capabilities of the Israelis, but they have good intelligence, and the West Bank is a small place to hide.

The leadership of both Abbas and Netanyahu will be tested in cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas that Egyptian intelligence is mediating. Abbas should use his influence to press Hamas for a quick end to the current hostilities, with a minimum of dithering, in order to head off the risk that Israel will send tanks into Gaza.

For his part, Netanyahu has erased in his response to the kidnappings many of the gains Hamas made in the last cease-fire talks -- rearresting many of the prisoners released in the prior deal, for example. That means he can afford to be relatively generous in the current talks.

Neither side wants to continue, much less intensify, the shooting war. Netanyahu has taken the first step. May he and Abbas continue along that path.

    --Editors: Lisa Beyer, Michael Newman.

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    To contact the editor on this story:
    David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net

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