If the two goals of the war – crushing Hamas and returning the captives home – turn out to be at odds, what should Israel do?
Now it’s time for our first discussion.
So, Allison, what if we have to choose between bringing the captives home and wrecking Hamas?
When Israel’s ground attack on Gaza started, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that it had two goals, quote, the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities and returning the hostages home.
IDF Chief of Staff Herzy Levy said the same thing in his message to the troops, and the same formula has been repeated by Israeli ministers and diplomats over and over again ever since.
At first, it was easy to think that these two goals, destroying Hamas and bringing back the 238 hostages in Gaza, were compatible and mutually reinforcing.
The thinking is, bring the leaders of Hamas to ruin, destitution and looming death, and they’ll be willing to trade away the people they kidnapped in exchange for their own lives.
But what if the two goals end up in conflict?
What if, for instance, the only way to save the hostages is to make concessions to Hamas that prevent the IDF from destroying its military and governing capabilities?
What if pressing Hamas to the point of annihilation makes them more likely to torture or murder the hostages?
These possibilities were always worries of at least some of the families of hostages, and you can feel the anger of these families rising as in the voice of this father of a hostage.
We have to engage in negotiations.
We have to do it now.
They say that the only solution is to destroy, to flatten Gaza.
They never mentioned the hostages.
This is maybe not perfectly factual.
The people leading the war effort mentioned the hostages plenty, but it still captures a feeling that seems to be growing among the many people demonstrating in support of bringing home the hostages, that when the generals and the politicians plan what the army is going to do next in Gaza, they don’t always ask themselves how their decisions are likely to affect the fate of the hostages, which is maybe why at the recent vigils and demonstrations supporting the families of the hostages, more and more of the speeches begin with the chant, now, now, now, meaning that bring home the hostages now, even if that means gumming up your plans to do away with Hamas once and for all.
You can feel how the bigger and bigger crowds that come to each demonstration in support of the families of the hostages are moving steadily towards expressing not just support of the families, but protests of the government’s priorities in fighting Hamas in Gaza.
It feels like this thing is getting to a tipping point.
In an article this week, Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel wrote that there is an inbuilt tension which is only intensifying between the two key objectives of the war in the Gaza Strip.
Soon the two main efforts could collide.
Politicians may have to decide how to proceed while the army worries that it will be stopped for the sake of a deal and then find it harder to resume the attacks at the level of force required to hit Hamas.
So, Don, do you think that this analysis about this inbuilt tension is right?
And if so, the people running the war are going to have to choose between prioritizing the hostages or prioritizing weakening or destroying Hamas?
If so, which do you think they’re going to choose?
Well, look, if we reach a moment when it’s clear cut, saving the hostages or the final downfall of Hamas, I believe we’ll opt to save the hostages because that’s our culture, those are our values, and the opposite decision to sacrifice their lives knowingly would be irrevocable and a terrible moral burden to live with and deeply damaging to national morale while postponing the downfall of Hamas is less irrevocable.
Now, that being said, what I’ve heard from the most senior military person I’ve spoken to who is very involved in what’s going on is the following.
He said negotiations for the hostages are being conducted as if there is no war going on and the war is being prosecuted as if there are no hostages.
Now, we don’t know, you know, very little really about the negotiations is getting out from our side.
We’ve heard about various deals releasing foreign nationals, the elderly children releasing 15 hostages, releasing 70 hostages, releasing 50 hostages, but we have no idea how close these are to the content of actual negotiations, whether these are head games coming from one side or the other, you know, meant to wear down the Israeli public support for the war, if it’s coming from Hamas or tactics emanating from our side.
Historically, Israel has gone to extraordinary ends to free hostages.
Obviously, the famous case is freeing more than a thousand prisoners to get Gilad Shalit back alive.
So, I think we may have to make a choice at some point, but we don’t seem to be at that point.
I mean, anyone who expected, I’m sure a lot of people expected and maybe Hamas expected, that Israel would be restrained in its use of force because the lives of 240 hostages might be hanging in the balance.
And remember at the beginning, they threatened that if we started bombing Gaza, they were going to start executing the hostages, which we don’t think is happening.
If it’s happening, they’re not publicizing it.
So, you know, we don’t know, you know, and I do believe we’re trying to limit civilian casualties on our side, despite the high casualty figures, because we could be doing even more.
So, I don’t know if it’s a real question.
I mean, it may at some point be an issue where there’s a real deal on the table, but it seems like we’ve been shying away from any deals.
But I say everything, you know, with skepticism, because we know so little about what’s really going on with the negotiations.
Well, I think that the dilemma is a real and practical dilemma.
And so, this morning, Nahum Barnea in Yediot reported, I think entirely persuasively, and he’s a reliable reporter, that the government, the cabinet, faced the decision to cease the fighting for five days in exchange for 50 hostages.
This was on Tuesday night, they discussed this.
It was a deal that had already been entirely signed off upon by Hamas through Qatar, and by the Israeli negotiators as well, who had understood that this was something acceptable.
The 50 would be all women and children.
And at the last minute in this cabinet meeting, to the surprise of the people who had negotiated the deal, Netanyahu himself scuttled it, because he felt as though stopping the war for five days, it would be impossible to start it again.
And so, he was facing, if this is true, and I think it’s true, then he was facing exactly this dilemma on, unfortunately, what remains just a very partial scale, because after that, there’ll still be 189, 188 people left in Gaza.
And so, the thing will keep coming up.
So, I do think that when the families of hostages and then others begin to feel as though there is this tension, by the way, Allison wrote a great article about this.
We were each sitting in front of our own computers writing about the same topic at the same time, and you’re hearing part of what I did in this podcast, and you should read what Allison had to say, having spoken to the families.
I think that their worry is a real thing.
I think it’s just true that there is an inbuilt tension between this, and we’re just kidding ourselves when we say that the two goals are mutually supportive, and then how you choose between the two.
No, no, they’re not supportive of each other.
I mean, that’s why they took the hostages, so they would have some leverage over us.
Look, it connects directly to our next discussion, because we’re going to talk about whether there should be a ceasefire or not.
So, what to do about this, I don’t know at all.
I was having a conversation with my dad, who said, so, does any of this make you rethink Gilad Shalit?
And I said, what do you mean?
And he said, well, a lot of the Hamas fighters that murdered people on October 7th were released in that deal with Gilad Shalit, and doesn’t it make you feel as though you can’t negotiate to release hostages anymore?
And I disagreed with him.
It didn’t make me feel that, but I don’t know that that’s wrong either.
So, I have no idea.
I have no idea what the right thing to do in this is.
Allison, what about you?
Well, nobody has any idea, because there is no quote-unquote right thing to do.
I also think that dye has been cast a little bit more than we’re framing this discussion.
Anshel Pfeffer and Haritz had a really good piece this morning about how we’re all focused on Al-Shifa Hospital, but if you look around, basically, the story of this war is going to be the destruction of Gaza City, of the largest Palestinian city in the world that has been basically flattened.
And you hear about the tunnel warfare.
Nobody knows for sure that there were never any hostages in any of the places that many, many, many Hamas command and control centers that we’ve gone after.
So, I don’t think anyone can say for sure that we haven’t already risked or ended the lives of hostages because of what we’re doing.
I don’t think we’re saying it, and yes, the negotiations are continuing, but I still think that without saying it out loud that the priority is the military goals of the operation and the top priority is not.
You’re saying in fact it is, not that you’re not saying, Allison says this is the right thing to do.
No, I’m not, no, but I’m saying that I think de facto the decision has been made, but obviously no one’s going to declare and say that out loud, and that’s why the hostage families are getting more short-tempered, angrier, pushing and feeling they’ve pushed their case.
So, the stories that I did was they’re on a march to Jerusalem to confront the politicians and look them in the eye.
What I found was interesting is that together with now, now, now, Akshav, Akshav, Akshav, they kept saying etkulam, etkulam, etkulam, everybody because they’re worried about these tiers of hostages that will get the women and children out and everyone will be like, oh good, the hostage problem is solved, or we’ll get the foreign passport holders out.
We’ll get everyone but the soldiers out.
People are worried about the soldiers.
They’re worried about even non-soldier, young, able-bodied men that are their sons and their fathers and have small children of their own and they care about.
So, they’re worried about this kind of what seems like a divide and conquer strategy or a way to fracture them.
And, you know, maybe I’ll talk about this more in What a Country, they’ve just become so bonded now.
They become a family, the hostage families.
I keep thinking about, yeah, I’m having these flashbacks.
I don’t know if it’s like, you know, a Madeline, you know, childhood memory, but all of these like yellow ribbons and hostages, hostages and the big group of hostages.
I keep remembering the Iran hostage crisis in America of, you know, 79 to 81.
Those are like 50-something people in a country of how many, you know, million people.
And remember how focused, I mean, those of us who are old enough to remember how it was so huge and how focused we were.
And now we’re talking about, you know, multiples of that number, 238 people in a country that is so infinitesimally smaller.
And, you know, everybody knows somebody who knows somebody or knows somebody.
This is just something that, you know, we are not going to get past.
Well, look, I think there’s several levels to this.
I mean, one is we just lost so many people who are brutally murdered in such horrific ways.
At the thought of losing more people brutally murdered in ways like this is unbearable.
And there’s a different equation that you have to do.
If we have a ceasefire, which we’ll talk about in the next segment, that increases the odds that the fighting will be resumed, that more of our soldiers will be killed, that Hamas is going to be in a much better position.
So you’re going to say, okay, we’re going to trade the lives of hostages for lives of soldiers.
You know, that’s exactly why they take them, to put us into an impossible dilemma.
And it’s exactly why you have leaders who are supposed to make these decisions because they’re trying to make the decisions not only from their heart, not only from their emotions, you know, and saying, I mean, Israel has gone, in general, I’m not talking about this situation, goes above and beyond what almost any country on earth does to get back its captives from other countries.
And most other countries, you know, say it’s horrific that someone’s been taken prisoner.
But no, we’re not going to war to release that person.
We have other objectives that are our national objectives that are determining our policy.
And, you know, it’s terrible.
We’ll try to get them back.
But that doesn’t lead our decision making.
So we have generally been different.
And this is also an unprecedented situation.
Babies and children.
Everything about this is unprecedented.
A woman who just gave birth, they’re reporting, I don’t know how.
You know, and this soldier who they just said was killed, and they released a video claiming that she was killed in one of our bombardments, you know, and which Israeli media won’t show because they’re saying this is part of their propaganda campaign, which it is, of course, even if it’s true, we don’t know if it’s true.
So again, these are impossible moral dilemmas.
But I think you hit it, Allison.
I think, you know, the army is going forward.
We will talk soon about why the army is, why the country is so insistent on not having a ceasefire.
And there isn’t a good answer.
And of course, you know, the families, we totally understand them.
We want to get those people back more than anything.
And we can postpone other decisions, but not necessarily that one.