An IDF reservist walks past ‘Bring Them Home Now’ street art in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv on Nov. 16, 2023

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Israelis Won’t Stand for Anything Short of Victory in Gaza

Leveraging the fate of the hostages to compel an Israeli surrender to Hamas is a sick, manipulative strategy that is doomed to political failure

by
Gadi Taub
February 05, 2024
Herzl’s Children
Gadi Taub reports on the two ongoing wars that will shape Israel's future: The military and diplomatic conflict between Israel and her enemies, and the struggle between Israel's Western-oriented elites and her democratic institutions.
See all in Herzl’s Children →︎
An IDF reservist walks past 'Bring Them Home Now' street art in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv on Nov. 16, 2023

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

collection
This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
See the full collection →︎

Something fundamental changed in Israel on Oct. 7. We were reminded of the mortal danger our complacency and fantasies about our neighboring enemies pose to our survival. This in turn awakened in us a fierce determination to prevail and a spirit of self-sacrifice we thought we no longer had. At the same time, our political concepts, habits, alliances, and enmities remain those of Oct. 6. In our public square, or what modern states have for a public square—newspapers, TV shows and social media—we still revert to fighting old battles. These fissures are being exacerbated, if not driven, by the preferences and demands of our biggest ally, the United States.

The Biden administration recently tasked CIA Director William Burns with brokering an ambitious deal that, as The Washington Post reported, would include the release of all the remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza in exchange for a six-week ceasefire, the release of Palestinian prisoners at a 3-to-1 ratio, the repositioning of Israeli troops in Gaza, and an increase in humanitarian aid to the Strip. All this spells an end to the war short of an Israeli victory—which is to say, it would be a victory for Hamas.

Against the backdrop of this American initiative, internal scuffling has resumed in Israel. The U.S. posture reinvigorated the belief among die-hard Israeli supporters of the “two-state solution” that what they cannot sell to voters will now be more easily imposed on an Israel chastened by a deal which would in effect spell an Israeli defeat. This hope has seduced some of them into making a gross political miscalculation: a chillingly cynical attempt to leverage the suffering of the hostages and their families in order to promote the deal that would stop the war.

The suspicion that the hostages may be used in this way was there from day one. Less than 24 hours after Oct. 7, media strategist and well-known veteran of the anti-Bibi protests, Ronen Tzur, organized a forum for the families of the abducted. The forum and its supporters, along with left-leaning politicians and, importantly, the press, then launched a very public and very loud campaign that demanded prioritizing the return of the hostages to their families: “Bring Them Home, Now!”

The campaign to bring back the hostages at any cost is trying to marginalize the imperative of victory in this war. Any politician who embraces this position will face the full wrath of the voters.

Had the campaign stuck to the slogan “Bring Them Home,” the whole country would easily have been on board. Add “Now!” and you begin to lose some of the traction. Attach the demand to end the war with the hostage deal of “all for all”—all the terrorists in Israeli jails, numbering over 6,000, for all 136 hostages—and the support narrows down mostly to the suffering families and to those who still want Netanyahu’s removal above all else, such as the two-staters who believe that toppling the prime minister will open the door to a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. That does not add up to a large percentage of Israelis. But this social segment includes strategically positioned elites: the press, the bureaucracy, academia, leftist politicians, and the upper echelons of the IDF and the security services. Call them all the Oct. 6 progressive elites.

Because the divisive call for a hostage deal that would effectively end the war is nested inside the widely shared empathy for the abducted and their families, the Never-Bibi crowd and their promoters in the press believe they have made a clever play, and consequently have deafened themselves to the public mood. As a result, they are now on a collision course with something greater than a vibe. They are going up against Israel’s instinct for self-preservation, the ferocity of which is manifest now like it has never been in our lifetime.

Keep in mind that the current generation serving in the military is the one that sociologists and pundits bemoaned as the Israeli version of Gen Z—self-absorbed, semi-illiterate and addicted to screens, faking superficial glamour on social media by taking pictures of their food, and also eventually bound to adopt the infantile pseudo-morality, increasingly prevalent in the U.S., of victim-worship and “safe spaces.” Or so we assumed. But look at these soldiers now, with their newly adopted slogan, lo noflim midor tachach! (Not Falling Short of the ’48 Generation!). The declaration, staccato sounding and as grammatically incomplete in Hebrew as it is in the English translation, refers to the pioneers, the warriors, and the heroes of the founding generation, which lost more lives in battle than any other generation, in proportion to the pre-Independence Jewish community in the land of Israel. That is a high bar to set for oneself. But so many have already proven their mettle.

The “Bring Them Home, Now!” campaign not only assumes Israeli weakness. It also assumes that emotions have triumphed over rational thought, that as soft, first-world netizens we’ll be willing to relieve our present pain at the cost of mortgaging our future security, and that we have lost the nerve required to make wise strategic choices. It assumes that the Israeli public’s sympathy, and its devotion to the ideal of pidyon shvuyim—the Jewish moral imperative to free the abducted—will blind it to the obvious fact that clamoring for the hostages’ return Now! only weakens our bargaining position—as evidenced by a document, possibly written by Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, that the IDF discovered in Gaza. The first line reads: “Distribute pictures and videos of the hostages, due to the psychological pressure they create.” The document adds the following instructions: “Keep spreading the message that Netanyahu is responsible for what has happened” and “Damage the Israeli narrative that claims that the ground offensive helps secure the return of hostages.”

But worst of all, the campaign to bring back the hostages at any cost is trying to marginalize the imperative of victory in this war, and, in fact, is demanding we resign ourselves to defeat. Any politician who embraces this position will face the full wrath of the voters.

Gadi Taub reports on the two ongoing wars that will shape Israel's future: The military and diplomatic conflict between Israel and her enemies, and the struggle between Israel's Western-oriented elites and her democratic institutions.

Moreover, the campaign to stop the war by means of a hostage deal is morally abhorrent: It is sending the families of the hostages, or those of them who cooperate with the campaign that uses their family members as political instruments, to crash on the rocks of the overwhelming public demand to destroy Hamas.

The hostages’ families are bound to suffer needlessly from the clash with their fellow Israelis. There are around 200,000 evacuees from the western Negev and from the north of Israel who cannot return home if we lose this war. There are 350,000 reservists who are either still in uniform or have just taken it off. There are the families of soldiers who die every day. And then there is what almost all Israelis share: the chilling understanding of what lies in store for us if we leave our blood in the water for larger sharks to smell.

Very few Israelis will agree to a retreat from Gaza that leaves the Nazis on our borders as a necessary price for returning 136 hostages, no matter how much we all care about their individual fates. The groups that seem poised to turn this sentiment into political action are the internally displaced and the reservists. And relative to the size of Israel’s population, their numbers—200,000 and 350,000 respectively—are huge. There are already reservists who are demanding to stay in service until the job is done. I’ve interviewed some of them over the last few weeks. We’re not going back home, they say. One of them, who is also an evacuee from the Gaza envelope, said his children asked him why he’s back from the front if they all can’t return to their home. “Call me up for a month, call me up for two months, call me up for two years,” he said, “I’ll come.”

The campaign to end the war by using the fate of the hostages as a pivot is a transparent form of bad-faith manipulation. Its rhetoric relies on minimizing the most vital question that preoccupies Israelis right now: the question of victory or defeat in this war. Instead of debating it, the press tends to declare that we’ve already lost, or downplay the importance of winning. It then endlessly trumpets the risible argument that the right—especially the right-wing devils Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and above all Benjamin Netanyahu—are obsessed with their own personal concerns and don’t care about the fate of the hostages, while “we,” the enlightened, liberal left, have empathy for the suffering of the innocent.

But there is nothing enlightened or enlightening about crude manipulation of the families of hostages. Pretending that there is no strategic dilemma, and then promoting a disastrous strategy, is not a principled moral stance. It’s a disgrace.

Most Israelis know full well that no moral equation can make the fate of 136 people outweigh that of 10 million. Most Israelis also believe that teaching our enemies that they can force us to surrender if they just kidnap enough of us in our own homes is not a good idea.

Since the American press gets most of its information about Israel from the Israeli press, and since the latter amplifies the “Bring Them Home, Now!” campaign, the strength of the counterprotest movement is generally not appreciated outside Israel. The movement involves more than just protests by reservists. A forum called Mothers of IDF Soldiers has just published an open letter to President Biden. “We are an organization of mothers of IDF soldiers, who are now serving on the front lines in the war for our national survival,” the letter says. “We accept the inherent risks our sons and daughters take, but we cannot accept placing their lives in unnecessary danger due to concerns for the enemy population.” They go on to say that “Israel has to keep fighting until all of our War Cabinet goals are achieved: Hamas is defeated, and our 136 hostages are freed.” They also demand “No further entry of humanitarian aid or fuel,” which they say goes directly to Hamas and only prolongs the war that their children are fighting, and that causes Gazans to suffer as well. Recognizing that this stance is in line with public opinion, war cabinet ministers and Netanyahu rivals Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot are now reportedly considering limiting the amount of aid entering Gaza.

You will not convince mothers or fathers who have assumed the risk of losing their sons and daughters—not to mention those who have already sacrificed a child in this war—that Israel can just leave the Gaza Strip without victory. And then there is a recent open letter to the war cabinet, published in prominent journalist Amit Segal’s Telegram channel, by 130 senior reserve officers demanding perseverance till victory.

These forces are now ready, it seems, to test their power: A demonstration is being organized for Thursday, Feb. 8, not far from the Knesset, to demand victory. Last week already saw a clash between a “Bring Them Home, Now!” march in Tel Aviv and evacuees from the south and the far north, when the march passed by a hotel where evacuated families have been housed for almost four months. Predictably, the incident got little attention in the press. One brief online story in Maariv, however, included a video of a displaced woman shouting at the marchers, “You want the soldiers to come back home? How will I return home? Should I return and let Hezbollah come to slaughter me? Promise me they won’t slaughter me, idiots.”

On Jan. 18, a handful of activists blocked Ayalon Highway, which crosses Tel Aviv, with the number 136, the number of the hostages, written on the asphalt in fire. The Israeli press lavished attention on the incident. Yet the same press gives much less attention to another kind of road-blocking protest going on for the last two weeks, which also reportedly included families of hostages, and which is delaying the entry of “humanitarian aid” trucks into Gaza. Clearly, this group wants to increase the pressure on Hamas, not reach a deal with it.

If you ask yourself which of the two movements will eventually have its way, you should first ask yourself how you rate the moral fiber of Israelis in general, not how you rate the political sophistication of their elites. If you believe that Israel has become soft and spoiled, you’ll arrive at the conclusion that Hamas will be able to bring us to our knees by torturing us with videos of the hostages. If, however, you think we might be worthy successors to the ’48 generation, then the conclusion seems to be this: No government will be able to hold power in this country if it resigns itself to defeat at the hands of genocidal jihadists.

Gadi Taub is an author, historian, and op-ed columnist. He is co-host of Tablet’s Israel Update podcast.