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Inside Israel's divided war cabinet

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Justice Minister Yariv Levin (2-L) , Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs (2-R) attend the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2023. (ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Justice Minister Yariv Levin (2-L) , Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs (2-R) attend the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2023. (ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Family members of hostages held by Hamas are furious.

They’ve stormed the Israeli parliament, calling for a deal to get the remaining hostages released.

But Israel’s war cabinet is split on a path forward.

Today, On Point: Israel’s government, divided.

Guests

Dahlia Scheindlin, public opinion researcher and international political strategist. Columnist at Haaretz. Author of “The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel: Promise Unfulfilled.

David Makovsky, distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute. Director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations.

Also Featured

Dalia Kushnir, sister-in-law of Yair and Eitan Horn, Israelis who are currently being held hostage.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Dalia Kushnir’s two brothers in law have been held hostage by Hamas since October 7th. Their names are Eitan and Yair. They’re 37 and 45 years old. Dalia and her family had to wait more than a month after Hamas’ attack before they found out that her brothers in law were still alive.

DALIA KUSHNIR: The first time we got to know something was on November 25. They started liberating women and children. And one of the women, actually two of them, said that they saw them. I think it was the first time that we could actually, for the first time, breathe. And we knew that they’re not injured, at least physically, and that both of them are alive.

They’re not being kept at the same place, but both of them are alive. We also heard about all the tortures and starvation, and I think on one hand, it brought us a lot of hope. And on the other hand, each and every second that they’re there is so dangerous.

CHAKRABARTI: Eitan and Yair were kidnapped from kibbutz near Oz, near the southern border between Gaza and Israel.

KUSHNIR: Yair’s house is at the entrance of the community. So it may be that they were among the first ones. We tried calling all the other friends we have at the same community. And I remember one of them in the middle of the day answered, “Stop asking me. I have terrorists inside my house. I’m holding the door so they won’t open and take my kid.”

CHAKRABARTI: Dalia’s brothers in law are two of the estimated 136 people still being held hostage by Hamas. The hostages are thought to be spread out over some 300 miles of underground tunnels in Gaza. Every Monday for months, Dalia and around 30 other families have gone to the Knesset, Israel’s legislature. They’ve sat in on committee meetings and met with lawmakers to advocate for the hostages.

They’ve shared their stories to try to push lawmakers to do something, to do more. But on Monday of this week, it was different.

KUSHNIR: I was looking at the list of all the committees that were being held that day and none of them was dealing with the hostages. I entered to this commission that was dealing with those inspectors that are going on the buses, to check that people actually paid the fee and I was devastated.

I was devastated, asking them, how come they’re dealing with it? This is not something important. This is something that can wait until after the war.

CHAKRABARTI: The families were furious. They stormed into a different room where the Knesset Finance Committee was having a hearing.

(FINANCE HEARING)

I have a bloody question! I have a bloody question!

KUSHNIR: So we entered to that commission, and yeah, we interrupted. And we told them the truth in their face. And we’re not nice and not polite. Showing them that we’re not going to be silent.

CHAKRABARTI: Dalia says that lawmakers in the Finance Committee have shown a strong willingness to advocate for issues before. A year ago, a former committee leader left the Israeli government to protest a debate over whether to sell bread on Passover.

Dalia says she wonders why that issue was worth such public action, and the lives of her brothers in law are not.

KUSHNIR: As an Israeli citizen, I’m struggling with the fact that my government is not doing enough. If they feel like us, and they understand that this is the most important and urgent thing to do, so maybe they should be the one standing and being vocal about it and not waiting for us.

We’re tired. We haven’t been sleeping for 110 days. We’re devastated. We’re broken. We cannot deal with that anymore. This is not our thing to do.

CHAKRABARTI: The fact that the issue of Israel’s hostages did not appear on any committee agenda this Monday is not the only sign of growing divergences within the Israeli government. over how to get the hostages back or how to proceed with Israel’s military strikes on Gaza. Which have killed, so far, more than 25,000 Palestinians. At least one high level government official has openly questioned whether the war is winnable. But this week, following the deaths of more than 20 Israeli soldiers in one day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to them, saying that the military, quote, “Would not stop fighting until total victory is achieved,” end quote.

Dahlia Scheindlin joins us now to help us understand the divisions that exist in the Israeli government and their significance. She’s a public opinion researcher and international political strategist, as well as a columnist at Haaretz. Dahlia is also author of the book, “The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel: Promise Unfulfilled.

And she joins us from Tel Aviv. Dahlia, welcome back to On Point.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN: Thank you for having me on the show, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Could you first tell us where you see the most important divisions within the government? Where are they right now?

SCHEINDLIN: There’s a couple of different flanks of those divisions. I think that the most, two of the most visible divisions are what we might consider to be to Netanyahu’s left or right, although I would hesitate about using the word left for anything with relation to this government.

Let me just remind people that the original coalition involved 64 out of 120 parliamentary seats and four different parties, which since, because some of them broke up, they became five. But that included Netanyahu’s Likud and very extremist ultra nationalist parties alongside the ultra-Orthodox religious Jewish parties.

So that’s what we might call the far or extreme right-wing flank of the current government makeup. Because what happened is after the war, we had a party that is generally on the center right in Israel, or Israeli’s view as center right. That’s the party called National Unity, which joined the War Cabinet, and that’s headed by Benny Gantz, who is the leader of the party and former chief of staff.

Now, the War Cabinet has been trying to portray on one level, good functioning unit that’s working to manage the war, but there have already been divisions within them. And the person who has been critical of the war aims that you mentioned before is Gadi Eisenkot. He’s another former chief of staff.

He is from that national unity party, and he has openly said, and rather I would say, rather surprisingly critical remarks considering that he is part of this war cabinet, that he is not convinced that these aims can be accomplished. Because the aims have been stated in a way that’s too broad, too general, and they’re hard to define, specifically destroying Hamas’s military and governing capacity.

The government doesn’t really explain what it means by that, how that’s to be measured, and what’s to happen in Gaza afterwards. So that’s one division.

CHAKRABARTI: Dahlia, can I just jump in here for a second? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to cut you off, but since you mentioned Gadi Eisenkot, I want to actually play a little excerpt from an interview so that listeners can actually hear how outspoken he has been, as you mentioned, which is quite unusual.

So first of all, I also want to add for listeners, that Eisenkot served as chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces from 2015 to 2019, he served in the IDF, in the Israeli military, for, what, more than four decades as well and his 25-year-old son was killed fighting in Gaza in December. Eisenkot gave this interview that we’re about to play on January 18th to Israel’s Channel 12 and you’re going to hear him through an interpreter.

It is impossible to return the hostages alive in the near future without a deal. And whoever is selling lies to the public, then he’s selling lies. There’s no other way to put it.

CHAKRABARTI: Dahlia, I want to hear from you about the other divisions in a second, but can you tell us a little bit more about why this is so significant that someone like Eisenkot would be so publicly critical?

SCHEINDLIN: Yeah, first of all, I might want to add that also Eisenkot’s nephew was also killed in the fighting in December. So he is twice bereaved in this whole thing. And it’s very significant because he is considered an extremely credible figure in Israeli society. For a while, he was viewed as one of the rising political stars after he left the IDF and eventually joined politics.

And he holds simply a high level of, I think Israelis respect his view. And he’s seen as somebody who doesn’t bring personal considerations into this. He also represents in many ways what the experience is of many Israelis who are either family members of people who are serving in Gaza or family members of people who have hostages in Gaza, or people who were killed on October 7th.

And so in a way he is voicing something that you’re hearing expressed on the streets by those people who are participating in demonstrations weekly at this point, for a number of weeks now. On behalf of those families of hostages. And I think a lot of other people who’ve joined them who simply feel the same way. That they’re not, they don’t believe the government is prioritizing the lives of the hostages.

And that’s become a sort of symbol of the greater critique of the government’s lack of clarity about the war aims, how it intends to achieve them and whether they can believe the government. Because Netanyahu’s line about this has been that only through this intense military campaign, which has had absolutely devastating effects on Gaza.

Of course, it’s killed 25,000 people and nearly 2 million displaced, that is the only way to bring about the conditions for the return of hostages. So Netanyahu’s tried to portray that those two aims go together, but there are, apparently, wide swaths of the Israeli public who do not.

Or who either don’t believe it or who are raising doubts about it, let’s say. Who are coming to question that, and believe that the two aims of fighting an aggressive military war and releasing the hostages might, in fact, be contradicting one another and simply costing more lives.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I ask you a follow up question to that?

Because, of course, people will probably or hopefully remember that prior to October 7th, there were major demonstrations weekly in this, in Israeli streets, particularly Tel Aviv, that were in opposition to the Netanyahu government, that was regarding judicial changes that he wanted to push through and eventually did.

But it did seem as if his government was on the line back then. So now hearing that there are protests growing once again, both about the handling of the hostage situation and about whether or not Israel’s military actions are warranted or effective is really interesting to me, Dahlia. But how does that square with the fact that from every Israeli we’ve spoken to over the past many weeks, there’s still this profound sense of insecurity, right?

That was the number one thing that Hamas managed to shatter. So are these protesters saying that there’s a different way to achieve or recapture a sense of security that’s not a total all-out war against Hamas?

SCHEINDLIN: Okay. This is a very important question because it raises a very important distinction.

The demonstrations that I’ve been talking about, I purposely called them demonstrations. For a while, I was calling them protests, but I think it has to be made clear that the broader and bigger pro demonstrations that we’re seeing weekly, mostly on Saturday nights. And to support the hostages and to call on the government to prioritize hostage release is very much trying to avoid a political orientation.

They are not trying to portray themselves as anti-government. It’s a separate protest that is actually a protest against the government and also supports the hostages, that has also been growing over the last number of weeks. And they are trying to combine forces with the bigger one.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Pick up on your thought about what the demonstrations, if not protests, in the streets in Israel right now really represent.

SCHEINDLIN: Yeah, thank you. My point was that we have both and it is complicated to explain. I would say if you’re looking at the hierarchy of demonstration slash protest, the biggest demonstration are those on behalf of the families of the hostages and their supporters who would like the government to prioritize their release, but do not want to be seen as taking a political position for or against the government.

But there is a growing contingent of people who are coming out, purposely to protest the government and who are blaming the government for everything that happened on October 7th, after October 7th, and many of them are the same people who were protesting the government before October 7th. And that group has been growing into the thousands, maybe even 10,000, in demonstrations that I’ve seen.

And they’ve become increasingly assertive about their message and their tactics and they’re sort of demonstrating alongside the hostage families. Because of course they support also the government behaving differently and in terms of its management of the war. I should say there is also a small cluster of Israelis who have become more, again, assertive, but just a smaller group who are protesting the war itself.

And who are calling for a ceasefire, calling for the preservation of civilian lives on both sides, and calling ultimately for Israel to support a longer-term political resolution to the conflict in the form probably of a two-state solution or any political resolution. And that is certainly a smaller group. But they have all started to turn out onto the streets. And not only in one city, there are also small clusters of supporters, for example, of the hostages and their families and advocates for them in Jerusalem.

They’ve camped out in front of, close to the prime minister’s residence, including with the prime minister’s private residence in Caesarea, not just in Jerusalem. And so we are seeing a lot of discord within Israeli society. It reflects what we’re seeing also in survey research, which is deep discontent with both Netanyahu’s leadership and this government.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Dahlia, then how much can we tell about if there’s discontent over how the Israeli government, Netanyahu’s government has been handling the war itself? Because as you mentioned, the discontent over the government itself is clear, but do Israelis overall still support this total war against Hamas?

SCHEINDLIN: They pretty much do. And we know that from survey research and everything we’ve seen in different, the surveys ask many different kinds of questions, whether it’s whether Israel should support a ceasefire, whether Israel should, whether Israel thinks it’s justified to be doing what it’s doing and whether even a recent survey by the Peace Index at Tel Aviv University talking about, asking people whether it’s justified to see the number of casualties we’re seeing on the Palestinian side. And the vast majority, I should say, primarily among the Jewish population, because of course the Palestinian citizens of Israel are part of these surveys, and they have extreme, quite the opposite views.

But overwhelmingly Israelis do support the war itself, which makes it very complicated for that bigger demonstration that I mentioned, who are trying not to be political. They want the hostages to be released. They want some sort of a deal to do that, but they are not necessarily supportive of a permanent ceasefire or an end to the war.

And in fact, what we’re seeing this week is also protesters in the other direction, including from the families of hostages, some of them more right wing. Who have gone to some of the crossings. Where aid and food are getting into Gaza, to try to protest the fact that there is any humanitarian aid getting to Gazan civilians.

And that also brings me to the point that we started with in the beginning. About the division on the other side of the government, from the far right, which was the original government. And supporters taking this, so either supporters of the government or even if they’re not supporters of the government, but they simply think that their only criticism of the government is that it isn’t going far enough. In terms of the fact that the government has allowed, for example, humanitarian aid into Gaza.

And this is very difficult to admit that this is a part of how Israelis think. But one of the very common themes you hear from mainstream media outlets, and you hear it from those families who are protesting the humanitarian aid, is that the only way Israel will cause either Hamas to release the hostages, or the only way Israel can somehow topple Hamas, is to pressure the civilian population by denying the humanitarian aid.

This, I remind people in a situation where nearly 2 million Palestinians have been displaced. Half the buildings in Gaza are gone, completely razed, 25,000 people killed, over 10,000 children. And yet these are the realities of how people experience what happened to them in Israel and their response, which I think has caused many people in Israel to completely lose sight of the suffering of civilians on the other side.

And I dare say it’s a mirror image. We see that war is deeply damaging to people’s sense of empathy on both sides.

CHAKRABARTI: Dalia, this is exactly why we wanted to have you back on the show today, to help us understand the contradictions and complexities beneath that headline of divisions in the Israeli government.

What you just said was so revealing. I want you to just hang on for a quick second here because I just want listeners to once again hear from Dalia Kushnir. We heard from her at the very top of the show. Her two brothers in law are still being held hostage by Hamas. And she says the release of hostages or getting them back home to Israel should be the government’s first priority, no matter what, because Dalia says human lives are in the balance.

KUSHNIR: Our prime minister is saying that he’s not going to stop the war by any chance. And we need him to stop the war if there’s going to be a deal. And I’m not even saying a good deal, because there’s not such a thing, a good or a bad deal. Jewish values are all about and around the importance and we sanctify life.

So there’s no higher or lower price for life.

CHAKRABARTI: And here is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. On January 21st, so just four days ago, Netanyahu rejected a proposed deal that was offered by Hamas that would have provided a period of a ceasefire and release hostages, but Hamas’ suggestion included Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza and leaving Hamas in power there, but Netanyahu rejected it, and here’s what he said.

NETANYAHU: I utterly reject the Hamas monster’s capitulation terms. Only total victory will ensure the elimination of Hamas and the return of all our hostages.

CHAKRABARTI: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu there. You heard him through an interpreter. Joining us now is David Makovsky. He’s a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute.

He worked as a senior advisor to the Special Envoy for Israeli Palestinian Negotiations in the State Department from 2013 to 2014, and he’s also director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel relations. David, welcome to On Point.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Delighted to be with you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: So Dahlia took us through in detail some of the divisions currently right now, both in the War Cabinet and amongst, let’s say, the far in the Israeli government and perhaps even to the left.

Are there any other places that we should look specifically to understand divisions that are opening up within the Israeli government.

MAKOVSKY: I think where I agree with almost everything Dahlia said, I think if I had one maybe just, gentle disagreement, it’s that I think when people like Netanyahu and Gallant say military pressure is what’s needed.

I think they are also at the same place, that it’s only through a negotiation that you’re going to get these hostages out. They look at November, which was like the peak in terms of numbers Israeli soldiers that were in Gaza. Now the number of reservists have dropped from 360, 000 to under 100,000.

And they got over 100 people out. So I would be a little careful of what I think is a false choice between, do you want to pursue the war or do you want to negotiate? I think everyone believes you have to negotiate. Brett McGurk at the White House, the president Biden’s special coordinator in the Middle East, is out in the region this week and in Doha and in Cairo, and that’s clearly where the center of gravity is.

And you could disagree with the Prime Minister in terms of his tonal emphasis. But I think everyone understands the only name of the game is negotiations. All sides are going to posture to the press about what they can accept in those negotiations or not. But I don’t think there’s any alternative to the negotiations.

Netanyahu and Gallant will say that they will only yield in those negotiations. As Israel closes in on Sinwar and death on the underground of Khan Yunis surrounded by hostages. So we’ll see if that assessment is right, but I’m just worried for your listeners.

Some might think that it’s either negotiations. Or fighting. I think everyone understands negotiations is the way out.

CHAKRABARTI: Now I understand that you’ve actually met with Israeli officials. This was late last year. Can you give us any insight to again beyond the news reports of the things that are allowed to be made public, like how much is this sense of that negotiations are ultimately the only option?

Did you hear that people being confident that there was a path towards, furthering those negotiations? Or was there, I don’t know, some lack of optimism that major, that progress could be made?

MAKOVSKY: It’s true. I was in December. For most of December, I was in the Persian Gulf, and then I was in Israel for a couple weeks meeting everyone I could.

The defense minister, Netanyahu’s top aides, people in the opposition, Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot. I should disclose that Gadi Eisenkot was a fellow at my institute in Washington who I got to know well, and I got to meet his son, the one who was killed. When I was at his home, so I should disclose that.

And I think what Dahlia says is accurate. There’s a lot of respect for Gadi because he is viewed as a kind of country first person, almost an anti-politician in a certain way in the world of politics. And I think and obviously there’s a nationwide sympathy in Israel for him after the loss of his son and his nephew within 24 hours of being killed.

I would think that, in meeting with people dealing with the negotiations themselves on the hostage release, it’s clear that there’s different categories here. That the first priority is to get out women, elderly men and people with severe injuries, and we don’t really know the scope of the people with injuries. Because we don’t know a lot and the Red Cross isn’t allowed to visit them.

So I think there’s more of kind of different categories and maybe, if you believe these news stories that are coming out of Reuters in Cairo, and different places, we’re talking about a phased approach. It seems clear that Israel wants to focus on phase one, which is at least the release of these worst cases.

And what it seems like is Hamas is saying, “Okay, we’ll let the first part out, but you have to commit in advance that that you’re going to end the war.” And so to what extent is there a linkage or not, I think is some of the key points of discussion.

CHAKRABARTI: Let me ask this because both of you have said that one of the things that seems to be evident in, let’s say, divisions in the war cabinet right now, is that the names we’ve heard, Gadi Eisenkot, Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity Party, I think they’ve been saying that the priority should be getting the hostages released.

Is the implication then that the remainder of the war cabinet, most notably the Prime Minister himself, that is not his No. 1 priority?

MAKOVSKY: This is where it gets a little murky. He will say, and I think he believes this, that only military pressure will yield to success at the negotiating table.

There’s no military solution to freeing the hostages. A lot of Israelis have this, for those of our listeners who know, there’s something called Entebbe. There was this release, which actually, Netanyahu’s brother was killed as a commando in 1976. It was, a lot of Hollywood movies were made about it, of this kind of breathtaking, going into Uganda and plucking out people who were hijacked on an airplane and bringing them back to Israel. These hostages are all over the place in Gaza and tunnels. No one knows exactly where there is. And Gadi said in that one interview he gave to like the 60 Minutes of Israel of Ilana Dayan where he just said there’s no Entebbe here.

And so I think that is understood but I think, Gadi and Benny are much more explicit about prioritizing. And Netanyahu believes if you really want the hostages out, you’ll get more in the negotiations by applying pressure. So there’s differences of schools, but I don’t think there’s one person in any serious responsibility in Israel who believes that there’s a military way to pluck 136 people out from all these different tunnels in Gaza where you don’t know where they are.

I think it’s a question of emphasis, what is said explicitly, what is said implicitly. And you’re correct that Benny and Gadi are much more explicit.

CHAKRABARTI: Dahlia Scheindlin, let me turn back to you on this. Because in hearing that from David, that 136 people out of Gaza by pounding Gaza and its people to the ground. But yet nevertheless, in hearing the prime minister himself say exercising as much military power in Gaza as possible is the thing to do, because that he says that might help get hostages out.

What I’m getting to is that I’m not sure if I can see, or what the path to even ending the military or slowing the military action down would be. It just sounds like a cycle of continued bloodshed.

SCHEINDLIN: You’re not alone. What we know from the peace index survey from Tel Aviv University that came out yesterday is that 42% of Israelis think that the goals are not sufficiently defined in this war.

And so they are also asking similar questions, primarily around the issues that you’re talking about. I do think it’s worth pointing out something that I don’t think David mentioned or you, which is that over the last couple of days, we also did hear at least, again, reported through the media, but from pretty credible sources, that Netanyahu and the government itself, Netanyahu himself offered some sort of outline of a plan for a ceasefire for Hamas that would have meant actually a fairly long ceasefire relative to what we’ve seen so far.

It was reported that it would have been about two months, including the possibility of evacuation for the top leadership. How much of this is hard information? All we know is that it’s being reported through pretty credible sources. And that was supposed to be his proposal for an exchange.

Yesterday, AP reported that an Egyptian source said that Hamas rejected it. So apparently Netanyahu does, again, completely agreeing with David’s analysis, that he sees the military campaign as the prelude to what Israelis call softening up the target. To get Hamas to agree to its terms, but it has not worked yet, is what we are all seeing.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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