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Israel at War – A Turning Point

The following is a transcript of Episode 127 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: Hi friends, this is Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi from the Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is our podcast For Heaven’s Sake, Israel at War, and today is day 242. And before we get into the heavy, momentous, hopeful issue, there’s something that we want to celebrate together. And my personal friend and board member of the Hartman Institute, Dan Rubin is celebrating the birth of his first granddaughter, first grandchild even, Catharine Barbara Lambe, better known as Kit, who, knowing Dan, is already a devout listener to all Hartman podcasts. So Kit, thank you for listening, and we’re honored to dedicate today’s podcast to the simcha in your family, and to hope that may you have a wonderful and long life.

Our theme for today is entitled A Turning Point. We’re not sure whether we should put a question mark on it or not. Israel feels different this week than most other weeks in this very extensive and long war. There is a broad sense in the street, in the public discourse, in the news, that the war or the reality will not be the same come next week. Could be another day, two days, three days, but something is coming to a head, both possibly for the good or the bad, again, depends on your perspective. 

There’s the Netanyahu hostage deal, which is unto itself a strange term to use, the Netanyahu hostage deal, because Netanyahu never puts forth a deal. He puts forth, doesn’t put forth, presents, takes back, reinterprets. He dances. But Biden declared publicly, not the American hostage deal, but the Netanyahu hostage deal to try to force Netanyahu to actually take a stand, and that’s creating a serious turning point because if Netanyahu turns down his hostage deal and Hamas accepts it the future of the war and international support and American support is going to be very very questionable, not to speak of in Israeli society, a society for whom parallel to destroying Hamas, returning the hostages is for some the most important and for many the only notion of a potential victory. If he turns down the deal that he offered, then what is in fact going on here? 

And just yesterday four more hostages were discovered as killed and we really, we’re not saving them without a deal. And it’s coming to a head very, very deeply. The other part that’s coming to a head is if Netanyahu actually stands by his deal. Can his coalition survive? Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich are openly declaring that they’re going to leave the coalition. 

So things are changing. And in the background, there’s a fire, literally a fire burning in the North. Kiryat Shemona, hundreds, thousands of acres are now in flames, symbolizing the fact that the North is an uninhabitable place and Hezbollah is raining on Israel a variety of weapons and missiles and bombs and aircrafts, really which we’ve never experienced. Besides not knowing how we’re going to win in the north, what are the consequences of of the enormity of this enemy? And you just sense in Israel something’s gonna have to happen. 

Is it gonna be opening up a northern front? Are we gonna stop the southern front in order to open the northern front? And in the background you have this conversation about the larger Saudi deal and the hostage deal is a part of a new Middle Eastern strategy. All these, there’s talk and there’s criticism and just even as a symptom. I counted today three articles in the Israeli press speaking about the turning point, and as well as the front opening item in every website is Biden declaring that Netanyahu is extending the war for political reasons. 

Now, there’s a criticism, there’s something happening. And so I want us to talk about this turning point. What do we think is changing? Where do we think this is going and what this is going to mean for our society? And so, hi Yossi.

Yossi: Hi, Donniel. I’m getting more and more depressed listening to you by the second.

Donniel: I don’t know, maybe the turning point will be for the good. It’s just, if you, it’s not the status quo, which we Israelis love so much, because like we’re the experts at status quos. Where does this turning point touch you, meet you?

Yossi: For me, the turning point happened last week. I was driving near the entrance to Jerusalem and I saw a big poster. It was a picture of a soldier that had fallen in Gaza with the words, “With their deaths, they commanded us to victory,” which is an old, a takeoff on an old Hebrew saying.

And this for me was just a moment that I’ve never experienced before as an Israeli. Because what’s the subtext here? It’s pitting the tragedy of fallen soldiers against the tragedy of the hostages. Choose. You’re an Israeli, you have to choose to whom are you committed. Are you committed to the pictures of the hostages that are on posters all over the country? And now we have a counter poster. What about those who fell? Was their sacrifice in vain? 

We’ve never experienced anything remotely like this where, this isn’t left versus right. This is tearing the country apart in our most elemental being. And that’s what this government has done to us. And I saw that and I said, no, it can’t continue. We can’t give this government another day of credibility. And this is the end of any pretense of unity in this country. To pit one form of what to fit, to pit the fallen soldiers against the hostages. Where are we? This is a country that I don’t recognize anymore. 

And so this government has now taken us to what I hope is the bottom. It’s the bottom of the abyss. You know, every time you say that, I just saw a tweet on Israeli X today saying, every time you think we’ve reached the bottom, you hear a knock from below.

Donniel: Yossi, you blame me for depressing you. But maybe it would be helpful for our audience, the context of how that saying is usually presented. And in Hebrew, it’s, “b’motam tzivu lanu et hachayim,” with their death, they have commanded us to live.

Yossi: Which under normal circumstances would mean saving the lives of dozens of Israelis.

Donniel: Or saving the country. It’s not death, it’s we are all obligated as a country to our fallen, to those who give everything. And we’re not supposed to take what we have for granted. Actually, the sacrifice this country has demanded of us obligates us to reach greater heights together, not to fight against each other.

Yossi: Especially during war, a war that the overwhelming majority of the country has defined as existential, and especially over the issue of hostages, which has defined the most basic solidarity, not only of Israelis, but of the Jewish people for thousands of years. And to see one against the other, these two images, of course, we embrace and mourn the fallen soldiers. Of course, we will do anything we can to save the hostages. 

And now suddenly, you’re telling me that I not only have to make a political choice, and I understand that. We do have to make a political choice. But that’s not what this new campaign of the right is saying. Make an emotional choice. You have to prioritize the fallen soldiers over the hostages. That’s the crime against Israeliness that the government supporters are injecting into this debate.

Donniel: It activates and reminds me of where I began to feel this turning point, this change. And it is very much connected to the sacrifice, not of the soldiers who already suffered, whether they’re fatalities or the thousands who are injured, but the deaths which have yet to come. Now, unfortunately, for most wars, especially the wars in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israeli society has no tolerance for military casualties. And we spoke about in the past that one of the paradoxes of Israel is that we have a greater tolerance for civilian casualties than we have for military casualties. But that changed in October 7th. There’s been hundreds of soldiers killed. But the country is almost accepting that as necessary because this is an existential war.

Yossi: And for another reason, because this is the first war against Hamas that we defined as total. The goal is not just to convince them to deter them from firing rockets. It is to bring down the Hamas regime. And initially at least, that was a goal that almost every Israeli Jew agreed.

Donniel: And we were willing to, it was remarkable, and we spoke about this, how in the various funerals we went to, how people accepted this as our price to live. This wasn’t a war of choice or a war with a marginal political agenda. This was a war of existence. 

And it was, you know, you met the families. You met the wives, the husbands, the parents, the grandparents whose children were in Gaza. They were sad, but there was a sense of conviction. There was a sense of a larger purpose. Not that anybody wanted their children to die, chas v’shalom, but we were part of something larger. 

Yossi, for the last two weeks, Israel has been sending out call-up notices. For people who finished 100 days, 100 days plus in Gaza, they’re being called up again for June, July, August. And I am hearing from tens of people, I don’t want my kid to go. I don’t want my husband to go. Now, it’s not to the level of conscientious objection. It’s not, even though that exists too, but I’m not talking about that. It’s not a, 

Yossi: Really on the far fringes, you know.

Donniel: On the far fringes, that’s not our issue. The issue here is, I’m not behind this war anymore. Now, I might be behind the war in theory, but when behind the war means you’re taking my son, my grandchild, you’re taking my husband, my wife, my daughter again, and you’re putting them back in Gaza a second time? For what? And there, people no longer feel that if we’re gonna fight for another month or two months, that there’s going to be the full victory that we’re yearning for. 

Yossi: So this is interesting. This is interesting, Donniel. Yes.

Donniel: People are more or less coming to terms with this. There’s a turning point in Israel where they’re slowly adjusting. They’re not happy about it, but they’re slowly adjusting to the fact that the full goal of the war is not being achieved. And so when the people are no longer behind it, that’s another turning point.

Yossi: Yes. There were two other factors here. One is this sense of drift that we don’t have a clear goal. The other is, as you indicated earlier, the fate of the hostages. And the third issue, which is hovering over this question of repeated call-ups of people who’ve done hundreds of days of service, is the Supreme Court dealing with the issue of the ultra-Orthodox exemption from the draft. So you’ve got this convergence of issues that is really forcing many Israelis to say, how much longer are we going to be able to sustain this? 

Now what’s happening on the other side among the government supporters is a growing sense of bitterness and desperation, which I partly identify with. And you know, when I saw that poster, it wasn’t just totally, I wasn’t just experiencing outrage. There was a part of me that identified with it. Really? We’re going to let Hamas emerge from the rubble of Gaza declaring victory? We’re going to let them reconstitute a government? 

So, and this is something you and I have talked about for months, there’s a part of me that will feel that if it ends this way, how do we continue to maintain our credibility, our military posture in the Middle East? So it’s all of these issues that are coming to a head. And look, in the end, I do come out and on the side of, we can’t allow this government to continue for another day. But it’s with a very heavy heart when I think about the price that we’re going to pay for our military deterrence.

Donniel: You know, I actually think we’ve achieved a lot of the military deterrence that we need or that we can achieve. 

Yossi: We don’t know. We don’t, Donniel, we don’t know. We don’t.

Donniel: Again, I don’t know, but I want to just continue back to a point that I was making that, you know, if this was perceived as an existential war, there’s no such thing as being tired. There’s no such thing as being tired. And that’s why there was no fatigue in the first six months of the war, first seven. There wasn’t. It was existential. The fatigue means that Israelis no longer see this as an existential war. That whatever existential issue has been dealt with to the best of our ability. 

Yossi: Well, the way that I see this, Donniel,

Donniel: And, or, or, or, or Yossi, that continuing is not an existential necessity or is not going to make a difference in our existential balance.

Yossi: Well, for me, watching the North burn, and I don’t think those images are being absorbed abroad, we sit and we watch entire towns going up in smoke. And the feeling that I have is that the existential threat has now shifted from one border to the next. And maybe you’re right. Maybe we’ve reached the point in Gaza where we’ve exhausted our capacity. And certainly, if you factor in the need to save the hostages, maybe we need to call it a day in Gaza. 

But at the same time, we’re looking at the North burning, and my feeling is this is really the existential front. Now, the problem here, and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about this government, this government cannot lead us into the next phase of this war, a phase that will be far more devastating than Gaza. This is going to be a level of war that the Israeli home front has never experienced, not since 1948. 

And so what I would like to see at this moment is make a deal on the hostages, figure out what our mourning after is in Gaza, bring the government down, elections, and then deal with Hezbollah on the northern border. The problem is that the north is burning now. And how do we, what do we do? What do do? 

Donniel: The reality is that the northern front could actually save Netanyahu more than Gaza, it could very, because while the world doesn’t understand it, in Israel, there is a very, very significant sense that the real danger is in the north, but we haven’t communicated that to the world. The north is this unknown reality. We were concentrating completely on the Hamas and Gaza story. And if we stop the war there and start a brand new one all over again, there will not only be more repugnance, it’ll be almost aesthetic repugnances. Like again, like you’re doing again where, so this government can lead us, but internationally, it will have no credibility. And the price is gonna be very significant.

Yossi: And I don’t think it can, I don’t think, Donniel, I don’t think it can even lead us domestically. There are too many Israelis who will say that Netanyahu is holding on to the extension of the war as a political life draft. And look, I think that we may have no choice, but the thought that this will, that he will be the one to lead us into this next phase, is a nightmare. It’s one nightmare compounding another.

Donniel: I appreciate that. You know, here, while I never wanted to be the anti-Netanyahu podcast too much, here, our feelings have converged completely. We are in the same place. But it is interesting to notice that Netanyahu’s popularity has rebound. Netanyahu is now again the preferred candidate as prime minister. Now, I knew this was gonna happen. The minute the ICC took out the, whatever it is that they took out on him or whatever, you know, that he, 

Yossi: That they’re threatening him with an arrest warrant.

Donniel: Threatening, threatening, I knew that that alone will make him, you know, the hero and he’s gonna be all happy. But he has succeeded in dancing and the Likud party is, its popularity is increasing again.

Gantz is falling, free-falling, and his party, which is in the mid-30s, is now going down to the mid-20s, and when a new right-wing party comes forth, he goes down into the teens. And so at the end, you know, sometimes Israeli society does unite around this external enemy, and Netanyahu, I think, might be hoping to do that. 

Yossi: Yeah, but let’s talk for a moment about what you just raised in passing, which I think is in some ways the most important new political development, which is the potential emergence of a right-wing alternative to Netanyahu and the Likud, headed by Avigdor Lieberman. 

Donniel: Or Bennett, right?

Yossi: But Lieberman is now surging.

Donniel: The leading figure, right.

Yossi:  Yeah. And so what Netanyahu has succeeded in doing in recent weeks, and you’re right, it’s certainly the International Court that’s galvanized his base, but I don’t see a real expansion of his support. There’s a consolidation of his base, which is now 30% of the Israeli public, 35%. Now that’s 35% too much. But nevertheless, I think we need to keep it in proportion. I don’t think he has a way to win the next election. 

Donniel: Anyway, I’m hoping from your mouth to God’s ears.

Yossi: And I think we’re looking at the emergence of a credible right-wing alternative that will have the capacity to unite most of the country.

Donniel: Let’s talk about new elections for a moment, because I feel like everybody talks about them all the time. Everybody, it’s almost the favorite topic of conversation, at least amongst our circles. Maybe we talk about it to compensate for the fact that it’s not happening.

Yossi: It’s our form of venting.

Donniel: It’s our form of venting. We could call it our form of hoping. But there is a dynamic that is taking place now. And that is that either way, between the hostage deal and the right-wing elements of his government, there is something that’s going to come to the fore. And I try to imagine, could Smotrich and Ben Gvir stay in this coalition if this hostage deal is passed?

Now they just did a poll of the ministers in the government and there are six ministers who they project to vote against it. Five of them are the Smotrich-Ben Gvir people. There’s one, Eitan Chikli, who is a Likudnik. Everybody else within the Likud party, not to speak of Gantz, everybody else who has a vote in the government is going to vote for it. 

So now you have this far right standing there, are they going to be able, in your mind, to do some calculation? Yes, I don’t want to bring down the government because we’re going to get much worse. Or is this their moment also? They’ve declared it. They’ve declared it.

Yossi: Look, yes, if I were in their place, I would seize this as the opportune moment to bring down the government and accuse Netanyahu of being a defeatist. and the only way to to defeat our enemies is by empowering the true right, which is led by Smotrich and Ben Gvir, and neither of them has a chance, and Smotrich far less than Ben Gvir, of really replacing the Likud as the mainstream right. But I think that Ben Gvir is playing a long-term game. He’s a young man, as is Smotrich. But Ben Gvir has figured out what Smotrich has not, which is how to speak to mainstream, right-wing angry Israelis without a messianic language. Smotrich can’t free himself from that constraint. Ben Gvir speaks a pure straight language of security. 

And if I were Ben Gvir, I would say, okay, I’ll bring the government down, I’ll sit in opposition for one term, let the center, left, right coalition that Lieberman will put together, let them reap the whirlwind that we sowed. This next government will be burdened with an economic crisis, with a security crisis, social crisis. Let them deal with it. They will fall and then I will emerge in the election afterward as the savior of the right.

Donniel: You know, it was interesting after the deal was announced by President Biden. Smotrich and Ben Gvir immediately condemned it. Smotrich went to go meet with his rabbis. The optics, like the religious Zionist community, we’re not like the ultra-Orthodox, that he has a group of rabbis who decides for him. But that difference between the two is going to be very, very telling.

And then what was so interesting is that it was announced that Ben Gvir is going to be going to meet with Netanyahu where Netanyahu is going to show him the details of the deal that he offered. It was then postponed, canceled. Netanyahu refused to show it to them. 

So I, just understand what’s happening here. You want to talk about a turning point. 

Yossi: Yeah, it’s extraordinary.

Donniel: There is a deal put forth by the prime minister which his members of the government can’t even read. They’re not even allowed to read it. Not to speak of us Israelis. Like, what is it? Where are we supposed to get our information? You know, maybe I’m thinking of calling Dr. Phil and asking him if he could please call Netanyahu again because I need some more information. Because that seems to be the only person that Netanyahu wants. He’s not talking to me. And so there is all of these things together. 

It’s, you know, there is some basis for optimism in that it is possible that we’re going to both vote for a deal for the hostages, which I would sense the majority of Israelis feel is the only quasi-victory that we could achieve. 

Yossi: At this point, at this point, yes. Yes.

Donniel: There’s also a deep sadness. At this point, there’s also a deep sadness that we don’t even know if there’s anyone more than the 33 hostages that they’re going to give in the first round that are even alive anymore. There’s this dread. And so maybe there’s also a moment of maturity in Israeli society where we recognize that we have to move in a different direction and we have to take the best that we can and move forward and maybe with that, that together with a new election process, maybe we’re not just on a turning point in the war, we’re in a turning point for the country right now. Yossi, last words?

Yossi: There are so many components to this moment that are unsustainable. And the Netanyahu balancing act, which has been remarkable, the fact that he managed to stay in power after October 7th, it’s breathtaking. One has to really admire the preternatural political skills of this man. But events have their own momentum. And we all sense that this can’t go on. And I believe that what can’t go on won’t go on. Where this takes us next, you know, I want to hold on to the hope that you’re holding out. And for me, really, the issue is, personally, what is the moment when we go back into the streets? For me. Because until now I haven’t joined the demonstrations and I feel that that moment is coming.

Donniel: So another turning point. My friends, Yossi and I tried to give voice to a lot of confusion, a lot of uncertainty in Israel today. Maybe something different is coming. The one thing I think we know for certain, it’s not going to stay the same. Stay tuned. We’ll see where those changes will take us. Yossi, a pleasure being with you. This is For heaven’s sake, Israel at war, Day 242.

And a final shout out to Kit. As you obviously learned today, being a member of the Jewish people is not easy. Hopefully, at the end of the day, it’s a meaningful journey. So welcome to the Jewish people.

For more ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute about what’s unfolding right now, sign up for a newsletter in the show notes and subscribe to this podcast everywhere podcasts are available. See you next time, and thanks for listening.

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The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics