Israel Update – Week of February 5, 2024
Reading the News: In Israel, Friday night is Shabbat. It is a night for sitting around the table with family, for eating good food and drinking good wine, after which I try to learn some Bible and then fall asleep reading the paper.
We subscribe to a Hebrew paper called “Makor Rishon.” The window between the time I sit down to read the paper and the time I fall asleep reading the paper is exquisitely slim, such that I am very judicious in what I choose to read. I usually begin with Ariel Schnabel’s column. Schnabel usually writes about the U.S.–Israel relationship. Whatever he writes about, he can always be trusted to provide a point of view that is new and refreshing.
This week’s column was no different. The title of his column was “Big Deal.” The subtext read, “The topic of a deal for the hostages lies at the heart of our national discourse. Why won’t the media let us discuss it with the necessary seriousness?” In this essay, I will review Schnabel’s article, fill in the missing background, and take his ideas a few extra steps.
When the Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, not only did they murder more than 1200 Israelis, but they also took about 240 people hostage – men, women, and children, soldiers and civilians, babies and senior citizens. A number of hostages were released during a ceasefire in November 2023, leaving about 136 – the actual number is unclear – hostages remaining in Gaza, most likely in underground prisons. Some are in the hands of Hamas, and some were taken captive by other organizations. Some of the hostages are dead – either they were dead when they were captured or they were murdered in captivity. Their bodies are being held by their captors to be used as bargaining chips in a future deal.
One of the biggest topics of discussion in Israel is what that deal would look like. What would it take to entice Hamas to release the hostages, and would Israel be willing to pay that price?
Last week, Hamas released its latest demands for a release of the hostages, demanding that Israel, among other things, release thousands of Palestinian security prisoners, withdraw its troops fully from Gaza, eventually agree to a permanent ceasefire and take steps to reduce its sovereignty on the Temple Mount. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the demands “delusional.”
The public discourse in Israel on what must be done in order to return the hostages is boisterous. Opinion can broadly be broken down into two camps: One camp asserts that the hostages must be freed at all costs, even if it means acquiescing to the “delusional claims” of the Hamas. Otherwise, they posit, the hostages will die before they can be freed. The second camp asserts that the government has set two goals to the war: the destruction of the Hamas and the return of the hostages.
While the destruction of Hamas will result in the return of the hostages, the converse is not necessarily true. Case in point is the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, in which one IDF soldier was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists. One of those terrorists, Yahya Sinwar, subsequently became the head of Hamas. The second camp posits that as difficult as it must be for the families of the hostages, the greater good of the country comes before the personal good of the hostages and their families. Hamas must be destroyed first.
It is generally assumed that the division into the two camps has closely replicated the division into the pre-October 7 schism, such that the people who were against the Netanyahu government are in the “Free Them Now” camp, and those who backed the Netanyahu government are now in the “Win the War First” camp. Or so the media, who are firmly in the first camp, would have us believe. Further, they claim that the majority of Israelis are firmly in the first camp. Their reporting seems to back up their claim. Haaretz reports that “Most Israelis Want Early Elections, About Half Oppose Palestinian State After Gaza War, Poll Finds.” According to Maariv, as reported in the Jerusalem Post, “Israelis want hostage deal for ceasefire.”
But is this really true? The question is: Are the pre-October 7 fissures really being replicated post-October 7? And do the majority of Israelis really want to release the hostages, even if it means a premature end to the war?
This is where Schnabel’s column comes in. This past week, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), released the results of a study (see Graph 9). INSS is a left-leaning security-oriented think tank, run by Professor (Emeritus) Manuel Trajtenberg, one of the world leading experts in the field of R&D, patents, innovation, and economic growth. The study clearly showed that a majority of Israelis – a full 61% – is against making concessions to release the hostages and wants the IDF to complete its destruction of Hamas.
What was fascinating was which media outlets did – and which did not – publish the results of the INSS poll. The results were published by Arutz 7, Channel 14, and Makor Rishon, which were all outlets that identify with the right side of the political spectrum. More “centrist” media outlets, such as the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, and Ynet, were silent. Needless to say, further left outlets, such as Haaretz, also had nothing to say about the poll. But here is the thing – INSS is anything but pro-government. If anything, they lean to the political left. And yet the “mainstream” media refuses to acknowledge the existence of a poll that does not substantiate or abide by their world view. Could it be that their agenda is not to report anything that does not forward their agenda?
Schnabel writes, “A hostage deal is a highly flammable and incredibly important topic. It lies at the heart of national discourse. The people deserve to be able to express themselves, and at the same time, to know what the rest of the people are thinking. And yet, the results of this poll were simply buried by everyone other than a few right-wing outlets because they did not comply with the world view of the media”. By not reporting the INSS poll, the majority of Israelis were gaslighted. Any person who did not agree with the “release them at any cost” mantra was made to feel like he was an outlier.
The hostages are our brothers and our sisters. Most people in Israel know someone whose child was taken hostage. I, myself, am friendly with Rabbi Doron Perez, who had two sons serving in the IDF on the Gazan border on that fateful day. One of them was lightly injured and the other, more seriously injured, was carried off to Gaza. (The son who was more lightly injured was married the next week.) We will do everything we can to free the hostages – but within limits. We cannot allow the Hamas to survive this war. They have stated to anyone who will listen that October 7 was only a start. They will repeat October 7 attacks until Israel is annihilated. And so we must annihilate them before they annihilate us. This point of view is legitimate and understandable. It must not be relegated to “the fringe.”
On October 7, everything changed. Governing assumptions that had been built over decades collapsed like a house of cards. The idea that Israel could be protected by a “small, smart army.” That Israel could “disengage” from Gaza without impacting her defense posture, that funding Hamas with Qatari money would give them oxygen so that they could govern Gaza, that a barrier would be able to keep out the bad guys. All of these “certainties” fell by the wayside.
When the war is over, there will be a Board of Inquiry and the guilty will be removed from power. And so while I firmly believe that the war must be won so that the hostages may be freed – and not vice versa.
Our message to the mainstream media is that Israelis will no longer be pigeon-holed. We are not right and we are not left. We are not religious, Haredi, or Hiloni (not religious). What this war has shown us is that we are all on the same team. We have seen the enemy, and it is not us.
Schnabel concludes his column with a particularly poignant paragraph: “When it comes to freeing the hostages, I cannot draw a line that I will not cross. Is it ten terrorists in exchange for each hostage? Twenty? Should we free terrorists with blood on their hands? I have no idea. But to enable each Israeli to draw his or her own line, he must have access to all the available information. This requires a media that is fair and unjudgmental that brings all of the data, whether or not it matches their agenda. And the fact is that a large majority of Israelis want to defeat the Hamas even if it means that the hostages will never return home. And I pray to G-d that each and every one of them return home safely and quickly.”