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Israel at War – The Hostage Dilemma

The following is a transcript of Episode 112 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: Hi, this is Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi from the Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is our podcast For Heaven’s Sake, our special edition, going now 124 days, Israel at War. And our theme for today is the hostage dilemma. And like many other of our themes, it’s forced upon us. 

I don’t think there’s anybody in Israel who’s not spending hours a day thinking about the hostage dilemma. A number of podcasts ago, we dealt with what we called “the grand bargain,” a utopian solution to the conflict, to all of our problems, including the hostages. But we never really spoke about the hostages. Yossi, you didn’t want to. You were, you didn’t want to. It was.

Yossi: Right. I wasn’t ready.

Donniel: You weren’t ready. It was too sensitive, the dilemmas, you didn’t want to go on rec—it was—it just— the war itself and the demands of October 7th— October 7th, paradoxically, which produced the hostages, was also that which made talking about it so difficult, because there was something essential that needed to be rectified. 

And how to balance them was something that we needed some more time to think about, but we don’t have any more time. As we all know, the issue is at the center of negotiations between Israel and Hamas, the United States, Egypt, Qatar. We also know that time is ticking away. Of the 136 hostages, we know, are confirmed, that 32 have died. There’s possibilities that another 20 are in, whether they’re alive, they’re in grave danger. Everybody knows the hour clock, literally hourly, and it’s haunting all of us. And we have to deal with it. 

And what makes it so complicated, and maybe this will frame our conversation, as distinct from the grand bargain, we know that any deal will be profoundly painful. There is no winning here, no winning. There’s nothing to win. There’s not going to be a moment where we’re going to redeem and somehow free hostages. We’re going to have to pay a price that everybody knows is on one level or another going to be detrimental to Israeli war effort, to Israeli society, and even to Israel’s security and safety. We all know that. That’s what’s on the table. It’s not a win-win. This is a serious moment, Avishai Margalit called them dirty compromises. I don’t like the word dirty in this context, but imperfect. So that’s where we’re facing right now. It’s at this moment that we have to ask these questions.

Yossi: Unbearable compromises which we may well have to bear.

Donniel: So let’s talk about it. And I don’t know where you are now on day 124. But on day 90, you weren’t ready. 

Yossi: I wasn’t ready, Donniel, because I kept putting myself in the place of the hostages’ families. I can’t put myself in the place of the hostages. I can’t imagine that. But I certainly can imagine being a family member, and we all can. That’s what makes this issue really so unbearable, is that the hostages’ families are really us. 

And what made it impossible for me to speak about this publicly was that I am so committed to us winning, to us defeating Hamas, and to holding on to this precious unity, this miraculous unity that emerged after October 7th. And we all know that if there’s one issue that can destroy the national unity and consensus around the war, it’s the hostages. And I couldn’t bear publicly saying that I’m more committed to defeating Hamas than I am to freeing the hostages. Today something has shifted for me. 

And before I play that out, I just want to look at why this issue really is so not only emotionally unbearable, but conceptually unbearable. Because the debate over the hostages posits two non-negotiable elements of the Israeli ethos against each other. First of all, there’s what Jewish tradition calls pidyon shvuyim, the redemption of the prisoners. And that was a defining element of Jewish solidarity for 2,000 years of exile. Jewish communities would do anything in their power to rescue fellow Jew who fell into captivity. And we absorbed that ethos, the IDF absorbed that ethos in its policy of never leaving anyone behind on the battlefield. We don’t even leave bodies behind. 

And so what defined us, our strength as a society and our strength as a people has been the sense of family. It’s not, you know, we don’t relate to the hostages just as fellow nationals. They’re family members. And that’s one element. 

The other element, which is equally essential as part of the Israeli ethos is self-defense. And as I’ve said repeatedly on this podcast, if we fail to bring down the regime that did that to the Jewish people and we leave them on the border, we lost. And our most basic credibility, the credibility of our military deterrence, will be determined, will be defined by October 7th. 

And so these are the two issues that struggle inside of us. Pidyon Shvuyim versus self-defense.

Donniel: You know, Yossi, there were two words that you used. One was self-defense, and then you used the word “us.” To frame my feelings about this for quite a while, self-defense assumes a sense of a self. And for me, redeeming hostages is our self. That’s what it means. 

Yossi: That’s beautiful.

Donniel: That’s self. Like, what does it mean to win? There is no self-defense if there isn’t a sense of self. And self is both physical, but self also has to do with loyalty, commitment, sensitivity to the challenges and to the dilemmas and struggles and pains of those with whom we live. And you called it two conflicting values. In many ways, the source of our strength is also the source of our weakness, which is the source of our strength.

Our source of strength, not at any one single moment in time, but over history, is that you know that you, to be a Jew, to be an Israeli, is to be part of a people committed to each other who have walked together as the Jewish people for 3,000 years. This notion that every Jew has to see themselves as if they came out of Egypt. 

You are part of a grand history, and that history is the source of our greatest strength when we go to battle. It’s not just the tank or the unit or the air force. It’s not just the skill of the soldiers. There’s a spirit which is our greatest source of strength. That’s what brings us, very often, victory, far more than something else.

Yossi: What you’ve just said now is what finally tipped the balance for me in realizing that we have no choice. We’re going to have to pay an unbearable price to free the hostages, precisely because if we don’t, that too will have terrible security consequences. It will destroy this people’s faith in our solidarity. It will undermine our morale to the point where I don’t know if we’ll be able to continue functioning as a society. 

But there’s a counterargument here, Donniel. Imagine the soldiers coming out of Gaza, fighting for the last four months, giving everything. There are soldiers who were wounded and insisted on going back to Gaza as soon as they were able to get out of their hospital beds. Many of these young people are going to feel we betrayed them. They thought they were fighting to bring down this genocidal regime.

Donniel: Yossi, I don’t know how much you follow the Israeli news stations and the interviews of soldiers. 

Yossi: Not at all.

Donniel: When they, not at all, in almost every interview, in almost every interview in which they speak to the soldiers about why you’re here and whether you still have the strength to continue. Do you know what each one of them mentioned?

Yossi: They talk about the hostages.

Donniel: They don’t talk about destroying Hamas.

Yossi: That’s an important point.

Donniel: It’s like, so I don’t know if I’m betraying anybody. This is what they’re saying. I’m not coming home. They said, you know, it’s 100 days, you’re here 120. Do you have the strength? He says, of course I said, the hostages are still here. This is what each one of the units spoke about. It wasn’t just, I didn’t hear about destroying Hamas. 

In many ways, part of the shift as the months, and you and I have spoken about this, October 7th is a critical moment, but we’re now on February 8th. We’re at another place now. And it’s not just the trauma of the massacre, it’s also this ongoing feeling that our people are still there. 

And so we’re really converging together, which makes me always worry. But, and I know, Yossi, that everything that you and I say is also the source of our weakness. And by the way, it was the source of our weakness throughout history. Marauding groups knew that easy money, there was easy money to be made, easy money to be made, but because the Jewish people would always go and redeem. And so technically Jewish law says you don’t have to pay more. But that’s technically, which Jew wouldn’t pay more? They knew it. They knew this was, it was a good business. Wherever Jews were, kidnap some Jews and you’d make some quick money. 

So I know it. I’m not denying that it’s a source of our weakness, but that weakness is what got us here. There’s somewhere along the line we have to. And this, by the way, doesn’t just relate to the hostages. It relates to the whole notion of victory and Israel tomorrow, which we have to probably start talking more and more about. 

But what we are as a country, what we are as a country is a certain way of looking at people, looking at ourselves, and looking at the world. But I know, and this is what makes it so painful. And we’re not getting into the details, but every, every single position being put forth by Hamas has devastating consequences as well. And that’s, by the way, it’s going to be psychologically very, very difficult. Either way.

Yossi: Look, I don’t want to erase the alternative position. I want to give them their voice for a moment. By the way, the polls show—I’ve seen two polls so far, and it’s interesting because in the past the question was never asked, are you in favor of prioritizing the war over the hostages or the hostages over the war? This is a new poll question. 

One poll showed a slight majority supporting the war over freeing the hostages. The other polls showed the opposite. And I like putting those two polls together because I think it tells us something that’s true about just how difficult this decision is and what’s going on in the psyche of each of us. 

But I want to ask you a question. Let’s go back to Gilad Shalit, the soldier that was taken prisoner by Hamas and traded in 2011 for a thousand Hamas terrorists, including Yahya Sinwar, now the head of Hamas. And I imagine many of the terrorists who either planned or participated in October 7th were part of that massive release. At the time, we all celebrated Shalit’s release. And it showed the best of us. It was, look at exactly what we’re celebrating today, the sense of Jewish solidarity and our concern for the lives of our fellow Jews. 

Was it worth it, Donniel? Would you do the Shalit deal today?

Donniel: In a heartbeat.

Yossi: You would.

Donniel: In a heartbeat. And it was so interesting. Do you know who welcomed Shalit when he got off the plane or the helicopter? Do you know who the first person to shake his hands was? Yossi: Besides Netanyahu, who was trying to…?

Donniel: It was Netanyahu. Netanyahu was the first one. And it was a very interesting moment in his career, what he understood. See I have a different feeling about these things. 

Do you remember the person who headed Hezbollah before Nasrallah? Do you remember his name?

Yossi: Nope. 

Donniel: Nobody remembers his name, but at the time…

Yossi: I thought this was a trick question and it turned out to be a trick question.

Donniel: We could Google it, but it just doesn’t matter. So I’ll mention a name. At the time, he was deemed to be the most significant strategic target that if we assassinate, we are going to alter the balance. The nature of all of these people is that they’re replaceable. So Sinwar, I don’t believe there is this one master evil figure. There’s an evil ideology with plenty of people prepared to take their place and we got rid of this one and now we have Nasralla. We let out Sinwar and if we didn’t let out Sinwar, you think the attack of October 7th wouldn’t happen?

Psychologically there are lines. I would not agree to a deal which said that we have to let people who participated in the massacre go free. Like that’s just, even though conception, it’s just psychologically, that’s just a lie.

Yossi: Okay, psychologically, I understand it and I agree with you, but conceptually it makes no sense because we’re going to be releasing murderers.

Donniel: Of course. I know. I know. I didn’t say I was being rational. I wasn’t. I’m just, I’m just, and it’s interesting as I’m watching the polls, I’m speaking to Israelis, I’m trying to figure out, what do we feel are our lines? One of the lines that still exists is, and you see Netanyahu saying it, even Gantz, even Gantz and Eisenkot are saying it. And when Netanyahu, Gantz, and Eisenkot agree on something, they’re mirroring something deep in Israeli society, that Israel is not going to agree to a deal that demands a cessation of the war and a withdrawal from Gaza.

Yossi: But that’s the deal that’s on the table.

Donniel: There’s three stages to the deal. You know, we don’t, we’re not going to get into it. Everybody, what the deal will be at the end, it doesn’t matter. But even that, I know.

Yossi: Yeah, but look, we don’t have to get into the details, but the fact is that as soon as there’s a long-term ceasefire, everyone knows the war is over.

Donniel: You see, but that’s the difference. People are trying to find, this is where Israeli society is. We know that we have to make a deal. We’re trying to find a way to articulate the deal that doesn’t feel, that embraces our values and doesn’t feel like a capitulation maybe to this other value that you spoke about. 

I’m reminded it’s a strange story, but it’s like this, the famous story of the scorpion who wants to get to the other side of the river. I don’t know which animal, it meets a fox and says, could you please take me to the other side and I’ll climb on your back. And the fox says, but the minute you climb on my back, you’re going to sting me. And the scorpion says, why should I do that? If I sting you, we’re gonna drown and we’re gonna die. So he says, okay, that makes sense. And they get on, he gets on his back or on his neck and they swim across. And in the middle, he stinks him. And as he’s about to die, he says, but why are you doing this? And he said, it’s my nature. 

So there is something that I think what we’re trying to do. We know, it’s a crazy analogy,

Yossi: I was wondering where you’re going with it. Who’s the scorpion? Is it Hamas? Is it Israel? Who’s the fox?

Donniel: I’m not sure, it’s just there’s something about.I know that it is in our nature to do something even when we know that the consequences, we’re not killing somebody here so the analogy is silly, but there was something about we can’t help ourselves, we can’t help thinking about our people who are there. We just can’t. I would love,

Yossi: And as you put it before, look, as you put it, Donniel, what makes this moment so really unbearable is that our strength is our weakness, and hopefully our weakness is our strength.

Doniel: And we know that it’s gonna be, so I think what we’re trying to find right now is some semblance of a perception of a victory. And so maybe if we could somehow kill Sinwar, even though in killing Sinwar, we’re probably going to end up killing a large number of hostages who are surrounding him. 

But we’re at a stage in the war, Yossi, where we’re grasping for straws, because once they have our hostages, and we know that every day that passes, they’re in life-threatening, horrific conditions, and we all, we’re feeling it, we’re imagining it, the reality is they have a bargaining chip that we, that is a winning, they have a winning hand. And we know it. 

And so we’re trying to salvage something, and here, I worry, I don’t want to let my ego, I want to make sure that the larger picture, not some ego or some political consideration, so that Smotrich or Ben Gvir could somehow still stay in the coalition. Make it substantive. If there’s a substantive issue, I could accept. I don’t agree to withdrawing our troops yet. I don’t know.

Actually, I think if we have a ceasefire for a hundred and something days, what is it? You know, you said yourself, when does the war end? When does it start? Who knows? 

Yossi: It’s over. It’s over.

Donniel: It’s over in any event. And so, could we accept that? The hostages are forcing us.

Yossi: There’s another problem here in terms of imagining some form of victory, even a story that we can tell ourselves. And that is that we have a government that’s operating tactically but not strategically. You look at the policies, you look at the vision of this government, whether it’s Gaza the morning after, whether it’s Hezbollah stage two, whether it’s Iran. And you realize that the government is playing this day by day. 

And when you don’t have an overarching strategy, it’s very hard to conceive a victory because victory measured against what goal? What is our goal? Okay, we say defeating Hamas, bringing Hamas down. Now we’re looking at it and at reality in the eye and we’re realizing that we may very well not be able to save the hostages and destroy Hamas. 

Okay, what happens next? Hezbollah is still on the border. Iran is still plotting. What do we do? And what do we do in Gaza the morning after? If the government at least had some plan that we were working together with the Americans, with parts of the international community, with our Arab allies. What’s the vision? And it goes way beyond the morning after in Gaza. There’s a whole region that needs re-envisioning. And we don’t have the people in power to do that.

Donniel: The challenge of the government is that they actually can’t agree on a strategy, therefore they don’t put one forth. And Netanyahu used to always believe that he could just sort of manage it, game the system, that people would be quiet. 

But right now, listen, Smotrich, Ben Gvir do have a strategy. And that strategy, by the way, includes not returning the hostages. They’re not willing, they’re not coming forth supporting a hostage deal that would involve months of ceasefire, they won’t support it. 

Yossi: Part of the source of their strength is that they’re the only ones with a clear strategy.

Donniel: And it’s very attractive. So you said this before, the issue, the hostage dilemma, is both a dilemma at the core of Israel, it’s also a dilemma at the core of this war, between fighting for what we have a right to and what we believe we’re right in fighting for, and having to adjust to reality in which what we have a right to expect we’re not going to get. 

The hostages encapsulate the inability of Israel to resolve however it wants this war. And it’s putting huge pressure on the cabinet. It’s huge pressure on the government. And I’m actually very concerned about how Israelis psychologically readjust to this because it is a tragic compromise that we have to be able to embrace, but still feel that we are embracing a sense of self, a sense of a self of our future, a sense of self of our security, and a sense of self of our values. 

Last thoughts, Yossi, on this?

Yossi: You know, I can’t speak for the Israelis, but I’ll say that this Israeli. will weep to see the hostages return, and weep in the other way to see, God forbid, Sinwar emerging from his underground lair and declaring victory. And between those two forms of weeping, I don’t know which in the end will prevail.

Donniel: As you said at the beginning, we might have to give Sinwar the victory so that we could embrace the highest notion of who we are as a people.

This is Israel, still at war. In many ways, we’re going to be still at war until the hostage dilemma is resolved and our family comes home. Israel at war, day 124.

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