Defeat Hamas or Rescue the Hostages? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- January 22, 2024)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. While President Biden and PM Netanyahu argue over ending the war by creating a Palestinian state, Israelis worry far more about saving hostages and whether it is possible to defeat Hamas. What is at stake?

A. Since the beginning of the war on October 7, it has been clear to many strategic observers that Israel’s two primary war objectives--defeating Hamas and rescuing the hostages--are ultimately incompatible. Now, with hostages dying in Hamas captivity and the IDF unsuccessful in locating and eliminating the Hamas leadership, the issues at stake are increasingly urgent.

Officially, the government still argues that Hamas will only be persuaded to release the remaining 100 or so live hostages by the application of greater and greater doses of Israeli force. As Netanyahu once again declared to the nation last Thursday: “Israel will not settle for anything less than total victory. . . . until liberation of all the hostages and elimination of Hamas.”

Yet there is no proof whatsoever that this thesis is effective. Indeed, it runs head-on into an alternative thesis: that as it loses the war the Hamas leadership is holding the remaining hostages as a human shield, a guarantee of its survival. Both theses appear to be based more on creative Israeli thinking than on solid intelligence regarding the Hamas leadership.

(Note in this connection that Israel’s intelligence on Hamas and Gaza has been conspicuously weak, beginning with the October 7 attack and the Gaza tunnels. Note, too, that even as Netanyahu blusters on, the IDF is slowing its pace and thinning its forces in the Gaza Strip due to both American diplomatic pressure and Israeli budgetary constraints.)

There is more. Netanyahu is described by his many critics as seeking to continue the war at all costs, meaning prioritize defeating Hamas over releasing hostages. As long as the war goes on, he does not have to face a political day of reckoning with the Israeli public, which overwhelmingly blames him for the events of October 7. “He wants to continue the war until next elections”, observes veteran opposition politician Avigdor Liberman.

Alternatively, or in addition, continuing the war enables Netanyahu better to rebuff Biden’s demand that he commit to a two-state solution with a ‘revitalized’ Palestinian Authority and a gift of Saudi ‘normalization’. One way or another, Netanyahu continues to prevent Cabinet discussion of the war’s strategic aims, thereby leaving the IDF pursuing combat without clearly defined objectives concerning either freeing the hostages or defeating Hamas.

Q. The Hamas leadership reportedly demands an end to Israel’s offensive, withdrawal of the IDF, and international guarantees that Hamas will remain in power in Gaza as preconditions for releasing the remaining hostages. How can Israel meet these conditions without acknowledging defeat in this war?

A. Biden’s proposals to Netanyahu are designed precisely to enable an Israel-Hamas deal that does not look at all like defeat. Negotiations over some of these issues, through Qatari and Egyptian good offices, are slow and murky. All the while, fighting continues as Israel tries to zero in on the Hamas leadership.

Q. So which goal does the Netanyahu government prioritize: defeating Hamas or freeing the hostages?

A. The Netanyahu answer is, both. Increasingly, that seems to both the IDF and the Israeli public to be impossible. Accordingly, heavy arguments are mustered to support each of these objectives separately.

Q. For example, defeating Hamas?

A. If the war ends and Israel does not recognizably defeat Hamas, even if the hostages are released, this will be seen by Hamas and its fellow Islamists from Tehran via Beirut to Sanaa as an incentive to press on and continue to attack Israel, with the objective of destroying it. Lest we forget, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis do not subscribe to a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. Their goal is eliminating Israel for the greater glory of Islam.

Accordingly, some responsible Israeli leaders, military and civilian, do not wish to be remembered for having traded the lives of 100 Israelis for another, worse war with militant Islam. They fear that the concessions they must make to free the hostages will be understood by Israel’s enemies as a sign of weakness that invites further aggression. Meanwhile, Israelis will live in fear: fear to dwell near a border, fear to travel abroad, fear of the next surprise attack.

How is this translated into military thinking? Here is none other than Ehud Barak in Friday’s Haaretz listing his “fundamental assumptions”: “1. Israel has to dismantle Hamas’s capacity to rule Gaza and threaten us. 2. Israel has no interest in remaining in Gaza permanently. 3. Gazans are not going anywhere. 4. It is vital to identify an actor who will take over after Hamas is dismantled.”

Where is the ‘assumption’ regarding freeing the hostages? It is conspicuously absent from Barak’s oh-so-logical scheme. He would presumably agree with those on both the left and the right, religious and secular, who argue that Israel cannot survive in a Middle East in which it prioritizes the lives of 100 Israelis today over the well-being of all Israelis in the long term.

For the moment, at least, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Galant would apparently prefer to push on and try to free the hostages by force even though three months of military effort toward this end have failed and have inadvertently killed some hostages. Even as a growing plurality of Israelis, over 40 percent, now support making a deal for their release. Even as War Cabinet members Gantz and Eisenkot, representing the political opposition, apparently favor prioritizing hostage release now, even at a heavy price.

Can the hostages be released and the war continue? It does not look that way. If the fighting stops for hostage release, Sinwar will receive international guarantees for his physical and even political survival, while Netanyahu will lose the Kahanist fanatic right wing of his coalition, his government will fall and he will face a hostile public in elections. No wonder Netanyahu insists on fighting on, even if the current phase of fighting at a lower profile means the war will be extended. Besides, extending the war might just bring Netanyahu all the way to a Trump administration in Washington, which might pressure him less about a Palestinian state than does Biden.

Then there is the price to be paid by Israel for a successful negotiated hostage release. Leave Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar in power? He will renew aggression the moment his preparations are complete. Release thousands of Hamas terrorists from Israeli jails? Sinwar the murdering psychopath was released by Israel more than a decade ago along with over a thousand terrorists in return for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Should Israel now release more Sinwars? Doing so will radically weaken deterrence against a host of Islamist enemies, from Iran via Hezbollah to the Houthis, all of whom are at this juncture still maintaining a wait-and-see profile of low-level warfare against Israel.

Q. So that is the argument against a hostage deal. And how do those who favor hostage release now at all costs argue their case?

A. Israeli society will not be able to live with itself if it abandons the hostages. Whatever the cost in leaving Hamas in power--where it and militant Islam will claim victory--Israel will be perfectly capable of recouping its losses and restoring deterrence at a later date, just as it did after earlier lopsided prisoner exchanges with terrorist enemies.

Israel does not abandon its own. On October 7, the government of Israel and the IDF betrayed their duty to protect Israelis; the state forfeited its very raison d’etre as the homeland that protects the Jewish people. If the state and its agents do this again, then Israel has bankrupted itself.

Maintaining the basic Jewish value of a safe homeland is even more important than the long-term dangers that could emerge as a result of leaving Sinwar in power and weakening deterrence. It is Jewish unity of purpose, united in a Jewish homeland, that provides the ultimate deterrent. Israel’s non-democratic Islamist enemies will not understand this thinking. But an Israel fragmented and utterly demoralized by abandoning the hostages cannot possibly deter.

Q. Somewhere beyond this Hamas-hostage dilemma is, ostensibly, the option Biden is offering Netanyahu: end the war, rescue the hostages, agree to a demilitarized Palestinian state bookended by Israeli-Saudi rapprochement that will cement your place in Israeli history even if you lose your extremist coalition.

A. Netanyahu and his coalition do not believe all this is possible or desirable. He professes to be troubled that Israel will emerge looking weak. He will look weak. He will have given up the Greater Land of Israel. “Whoever is talking about the ‘day after Netanyahu’ is essentially talking about the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he lectured the public last week. In the post-October 7 era, Netanyahu effectively portrays a Palestinian state as a Hamas state.

Biden is offering Netanyahu far-reaching ideological and political concessions if the Israeli leader will just agree to the principle of a Palestinian state. The state will not have an army. It will not emerge until and unless the Palestinian Authority has been ‘revitalized’. It is not at all clear whether and how Hamas will be integrated, or removed from the scene or otherwise disposed of.

A cynical Netanyahu could easily smirk and agree to all this, knowing that the ensuing diplomatic process will take years and will likely be interrupted by more Islamist aggression against Israel. But he refuses, apparently because agreement will mean the end of his political career.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Here is Yossi Klein in Haaretz last Thursday: “We lack courage. Courage means to choose between ending the war, which will release the hostages but leave Hamas in Gaza, and continuing the war and thereby killing the hostages and dismembering [Israeli] society.”

Netanyahu not only lacks courage to decide one way or another. He is busy figuring out how to stay in power while rebuffing Biden’s compromise two-state appeal. Yet more than anyone else in Israel, Netanyahu is responsible for the hostage disaster.

Q. P.S. Where do you stand regarding the hostage issue?

A. Not making every possible concession to rescue the hostages will place Israel in an unforgivable existential dilemma. They must not be left to die.