Hostages and their families deserve a seat at the decision-making table of the Middle East crisis

Some years ago, before the Israeli ethos was shattered by divisive political leaders, there used to be a special place in society for the families of those who died in service or terror attacks. It was collectively referred to as the bereavement family, the Israeli version of the Gold Star Families. With the scale of the October 7th atrocities, particularly the unprecedented hostage crisis, we are now witnessing a new and exclusive social class emerging – the hostages and their families. This new class has very particular political needs and interests: their swift return now and eventual recovery and integration back into society.

The hostage families, an “invisible” stakeholder among the forces shaping the region these days, are affecting the chain of events and could potentially determine the future of the region. A political party may be too cumbersome of a structure for their needs, but some creative, ad-hoc instruments may emerge to serve this purpose. Against a backdrop of delegitimization and intimidation campaigns (the roots of which trace back to Netanyahu himself), the courageous efforts of the released hostages and their families should not be disregarded.

As an Israeli expat, volunteering to support hostage families on their advocacy journey in Washington, DC over five months now, the emotional chasm between them and the rest of the world is evident. It’s difficult for most people to empathize with or comprehend the profound anguish they endure. Their experience is so extreme, their day-to-day so hard to fathom and the mere thought of trying to put yourself in their shoes is so terrifying that many are unwilling to even try.

In addition, the sheer scale of this event is so large that it makes it even harder to be empathetic. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was held hostage by Hamas in Gaza between 2006-2011, was “everyone’s child”. But there was only one face to his campaign. How do you personalize the efforts of over 100 families? The hostage families can easily be reduced to shallow images of despondent people, clones of the same empty figure, wearing a “Bring Them Home Now” t-shirt, and holding their loved one’s printed Facebook profile picture. The sad truth is that being one of the largest hostage-taking cases in modern history is making those families’ efforts impossible to personalize and relate to. But this is a dire mistake.

The magnitude of this event underscores the unprecedented efforts made by the hostages’ families. As Netanyahu continues to dig his heels in,  hardening his position in the negotiations process, the released hostages and their families’ efforts to bring the others home must become even more focused and determined. While inherently political, this campaign should not be conflated with other political agendas. It is not aimed at ousting Netanyahu or calling for a ceasefire and to attribute any other political motive to the families’ campaign would be a cynical use of their efforts.

Once all hostages are safely returned home, the pivotal role of the families in navigating this crisis should undoubtedly become a Harvard Business School case study for creativity, radical collaboration, and building international influence and soft power. Far from being powerless, these families wield unparalleled gravitas on the global stage, comparable to that of world leaders. They have met countless heads of state , and their cause is frequently highlighted in speeches on the House floor and in meetings with senior members of the U.S. Congress. Not many people can say that they had a two-hour meeting with President Biden, a meeting with the Vice President and the Second Gentleman, with the head of the CIA, and sat in the gallery during the State of the Union as invited guests.

They don’t just have a busy calendar. They get the job done. Their drive and stamina derive from the strongest motivation one could possibly imagine. Who would work harder than the older sister of a hostage, whose life-long identity has been to protect her younger siblings from harm? Under these somber circumstances, family members are building an impressive skillset to advance their righteous cause, developing expertise in delivering messages effectively, motivating and relating to those around them, navigating complex media engagements, and bridging challenging political situations. The global nature of this campaign quickly made them geopolitically savvy, and capable of handling sensitive multicultural and inter-religious situations.

But above all, they have skin in the game like no one else. The moral clarity, authority even, that is granted along with the lamentable title of “released hostage”, or a “hostage family” is something desperately needed in the decision-making circles in Israel, but the hostage families’ requests to have a seat at the negotiation table thus far have been ignored Their involvement would bring a crucial perspective to any decision made around the hostages and the future of the war in Gaza.

But they have not been given that opportunity. Rather than being empowered and encouraged to speak up, their participation requests have been shut down, seemingly at the behest of senior leaders.  Even still, their global campaign is granting them an invisible seat at the negotiating table, one that will hopefully remain once their loved ones are back home.

The story of Israel’s creation is one of holocaust and rebirth. At this inflection point, the hostages are more than a token to solve (or sustain) the Middle East’s Rubik’s Cube. If there is any chance of an attainable, sustainable solution to this decades-long conflict, the immediate return of all hostages is the first step. Not only have they paid the ultimate price, but after spearheading this global effort they now hold the skills, connections, and moral clarity to carry this leadership role. After this crisis is resolved, the hostages and their families are where we should be looking for fresh leaders of Israel 2.0.

About the Author
Bar Ben Yaakov is an international development professional and social entrepreneur. She is a representative for Israel at the board of executive directors of the Inter-American Development Bank Group (IDB Group), and Co-Chair of the Hostage Families Forum in Washington, DC. Bar is a former Advisor to IDB Group President Ilan Goldfajn, Matan’s wife and Ari’s mom.
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