By Barry Rubin

Last week, a Palestinian with an axe attacked and murdered a 16-year-old boy, Shlomo Nativ, and wounded a 7-year-old boy in a West Bank Jewish settlement. The situation following this event tells a great deal about why Israel must ignore most Western criticism and advice.

Let’s list some of the real factors operating here.

  • The Palestinian Authority (PA) won’t help find the killer.
  • If they found him, they wouldn’t turn him over to Israel.
  • If they tried him in court it would not be for murder but for acts undermining the Palestinian people’s interests, a formula always used in such situations. In other words, his misdemeanor would be attacking at a time unsuitable to the PA’s needs. Taking an axe and murdering a little boy is not a crime in itself.

One could say that this is due to the fact that the boy was a settler living on the West Bank. Yet if he had been living inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders that would have made no difference, as previous such cases have shown repeatedly.

  • If the man were jailed, he would be treated very leniently, jailors daily letting him know that he’d done nothing wrong. He would probably be quietly released or allowed to escape, as has so often happened.
  • He won’t be denounced in the Palestinian media as having done a terrible thing. There won’t be a word of criticism from any PA-controlled school, mosque, newspaper, television or radio station, or official. They might well praise him. The PA doesn’t act merely to appease Hamas but also because its own people and even officials think that killing Israeli civilians makes one a hero.
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This can all be seen in the recent case of Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, who murdered an Israeli child in cold blood. Hizballah made his release a top priority, and after he was let go in a prisoner exchange, he was received as a hero by Lebanese, Syrian, and PA leaders.

There was no notable Western reaction and little coverage.

The PA couldn’t even act cynically by pretending moderation for show. On one hand, it didn’t want to risk radical reaction at home; on the other hand, it knows much of the West will help it and criticize Israel no matter what the Palestinian leadership does. True, it has done better in stopping terrorism over the last two years but that was because of shorter-term factors.

Feeling the need to compete with Hamas on the only scale of success used in Palestinian politics—not compromise to get a state or raising living standards, but attacks on Israelis—this may change at any moment. In short, the PA—supposedly the moderate force and Israel’s peace partner—will do nothing to educate its people toward peace, discourage terrorism, or persuade Israelis it wants peace and will keep commitments made in negotiations.

Then there’s the international reaction which shows Israelis they can little depend on foreign support if they take more risks or give more concessions. Consequently, Israel has no incentive to do so since it has no internationally guaranteed safety net if things go wrong.

  • No one will condemn the PA for war crimes in aiding and abetting terrorists or for systematically encouraging Palestinians to become suicide bombers and kill Israeli civilians. It would be a miracle if the media even reported these things.
  • Newspaper columns won’t fill with articles asserting the Palestinians have lost their right to have a state due to immoral behavior and hating the “other.”
  • Activists won’t organize anti-PA or even anti-Hamas boycotts.
  • There won’t be talk of cutting aid to the PA unless it acts decisively to stop terrorism and incitement to murder Israelis.
  • No impassioned discussion will take place about the thousands of Israeli civilian victims of terrorist attacks and rocket firings.

This and hundreds of similar cases since the PA was created in 1994 have huge political implications. If the PA can’t and won’t act in such “small” matters to show it wants peace, will educate its people, counter Hamas, and assure Israelis of its peaceful intentions, how can it be expected to deal with the huge issues entailed in making and keeping a comprehensive peace agreement?

To point out these things has nothing to do with being “left” or “right,” pro- or anti-peace. They are basic facts which must shape opinions and direct policies.

There’s also an irony in the Nativ case that further underscores differences between the two sides. The boy’s father is in prison because Israeli authorities investigated, captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced him to 15 years’ in jail for building a bomb intended for use against Palestinians. No one was actually injured by him but he was given a tough sentence because Israel took a moral stance while seeking to preserve justice, discourage such behavior, and show it wants peace. No Israeli institution praised him, defended him, or rationalized his actions.

In a real sense, the 1990s’ peace process fulfilled one aspect of its design by testing both sides’ readiness for peace and willingness to take confidence-building measures. Israel passed; the PA flunked. If others don’t understand this reality, it’s because they haven’t been paying attention or—for various reasons—don’t care.

Israel’s task, however, is to act on the basis of this experience, an experience reinforced by every detail of unfolding events.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to