ISRAEL AND the Palestinian territories have been an unlikely island of calm in a Middle East wracked by war and revolution. Yet now their anxious populations are witnessing how quickly a spiral of violence can be triggered by extremists. Following the abduction and slaying of three Israeli teenagers by militants believed to be linked to the Hamas movement, a Palestinian youth was kidnapped and killed . Angry citizens from both sides have rioted, Hamas fired rockets at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip and Israel has responded with airstrikes.
So far, political leaders — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — have responded with relative maturity, denouncing the killings and rejecting some of the more extreme responses proposed by their followers. But both will have to do more, and resist their worst instincts, if they are to head off further bloodshed.
To some extent, the trouble has its roots in the collapse of the peace negotiations that Secretary of State John F. Kerry attempted to broker. At their expiration in April, Mr. Netanyahu stopped a planned release of Palestinian prisoners and Mr. Abbas turned to Hamas, forging an agreement for a unity government and elections. Israel denounced the deal; Hamas, for its part, has sharply increased rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in the last month. Then came the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers, who were hitchhiking in the West Bank. The perpetrators, according to Israel, were two known Hamas members. They might have been seeking hostages who could be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners. But the teenagers were shot soon after being picked up, possibly because one called police on a cellphone.
In the 18 days between the youths’ disappearance and the discovery of their bodies Monday, Mr. Netanyahu launched a crackdown against Hamas in the West Bank, arresting dozens of its members. On Tuesday, he pledged to continue the operation while hunting for the killers; he may also approve new West Bank settlement construction. That advances his larger aim of undercutting the new Palestinian government. But the Israeli leader has turned aside proposals for an invasion of Gaza, and he sharply denounced the murder of the Palestinian teenager, whose killers are unknown.
Mr. Abbas, too, condemned the abduction of the Israelis, and Palestinian security forces quietly cooperated in the search for them. But the Palestinian president has not backed away from his alliance with Hamas, and he has hinted that his response to the violence will be to step up the Palestinian campaign for membership in international organizations — a strategy as counterproductive as Israeli settlement-building.
After overexerting itself on the ill-considered attempt to broker a final peace settlement, the Obama administration has stepped back from the region. The State Department’s special envoy resigned last week. But U.S. influence is needed now to restrain Israeli and Palestinian leaders and to push the two sides toward steps to ease tensions. The last thing the United States — or the Middle East — needs is the eruption of another war.