Sometimes, tragedies can provide moments of clarity. The brutal deaths of teenagers Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel – whose bodies were discovered on Monday half-buried in an open field north of the city of Hebron – represent more than just a national disaster for the state of Israel. They are also an inflection point for Palestinian governance, as well as a litmus test for the true prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Since the three boys were kidnapped on June 12th, the incident has consumed both Israeli politics and worldwide Jewish opinion. As the crisis has worn on, critical attention has also focused on the Palestinian response, and for good reason. The abduction was perpetrated by members of Hamas, and subsequently lionized by Khaled Mishaal, the infamous head of the group's political bureau.
Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, has tried his best to skirt the issue altogether. The Palestinian Authority president condemned the kidnapping only belatedly, and framed his government's response to it (and its cooperation with Israel on the matter) as a political tactic necessary in order to preserve his rule. Yet his government appears to have done little tangible to assist in the apprehension of the kidnappers.
There is good reason for this reticence. A month ago, Mr. Abbas' administration struck a historic pact with Hamas, forging a long-sought-after "unity" government that installed the Islamist movement as the de facto shot-caller in Palestinian politics. A decisive counterterrorism campaign could upend the unity deal, and activate anew the corrosive civil strife that defined ties between the Palestinian Authority and its Islamist opposition in recent years.
Israel, meanwhile, is preparing to strike back. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said publicly that Hamas "will pay" for the deaths, as well as for the recent uptick in rocket attacks targeting Israel. It assuredly will; the last time tensions between Israel and the Palestinians were this high was in November of 2012, following the firing of hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip. The result was Operation Pillar of Defense, a military incursion that resulted in the death of Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas' military wing.
For the moment, Israel's government is holding its fire, preferring to assess the situation in the fullness of time. Yet few doubt that a forceful Israeli response will materialize at some point – and likely soon.
Hamas is certainly expecting it. The group has threatened to "open the gates of hell" should Israel carry out a military campaign. If it does, either via insurgent warfare in the Palestinian territories or stepped-up terrorism on Israeli soil, it could ignite a new round of sustained violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
The real question, then, is what Mr. Abbas can and will do. The Palestinian president now finds himself between a rock and an exceedingly hard place. He can either cooperate with Israel to help bring the boys' kidnappers to justice – taking up arms against Hamas (and likely reopening a major fault-line in Palestinian politics) in the process. Or he can throw in his lot with his newfound allies in government, thereby dashing once and for all the stubborn idea – clung to by the likes of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – that his government represents the last, best hope for some sort of peace with Israel.
The path he chooses will matter a great deal, both for the future relationship between Israel and the Palestinians and for the fortunes (as well as the security) of the Palestinians themselves.