Was the freeing of hostages ever a priority for Israel’s war cabinet? More crucially, does the Israeli public believe that the freeing of hostages is as compelling an imperative as “winning” the war – however the government eventually chooses to define what constitutes victory?
It was clear from October 7 that the hostages’ return was never going to determine the start, the pace, or the timetable of Israel’s war against Hamas. It is even more clear today what prize Benyamin Netanyahu, engaged in an all-out gamble to increase his chances for post-war political survival, is after: whatever will allow him to declare a symbolic military victory, and claim credit for it. His government never considered the option of attempting to achieve the release of all the hostages through every conceivable avenue before starting the war, including if that meant delaying the onset of military operations. Recent suggestions by Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot that a path toward a cessation of hostilities of sorts in exchange for the release of the hostages still held in Gaza should be explored fell on deaf ears (raising the question of what influence these two actually have on decision-making in the war cabinet.) Only the pressure brought to bear by the hostages’ families and the international support they managed to gain prompted Netanyahu’s government, first to include the release of hostages in the war objectives, and then to acquiesce in the negotiation process that led to the freeing of 105 hostages last November.
Since then, no strategy aimed at ensuring the release of those still captive has been put on the table. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant consistently maintain that only the war effort can produce this outcome – a claim that over three months of fighting has vastly disproved since only one hostage has been rescued to date in a military operation and it is thoroughly possible that, as manipulatively claimed by Hamas multiple times, some hostages were killed by IDF bombardments. Does the Israeli leadership really believe that Hamas will keep remaining hostages in conditions ensuring their survival until such time as Israel deems military pressure to have reached the appropriate level for their release?
The litany of copy-paste statements repeated daily by government officials that yes, the release of the remaining hostages is indeed a top priority of the war effort – statements that never include any specifics as to how this might be achieved – now sounds merely performative. The only success this government can boast about since the release of hostages last November is the delivery of medicine now under way – medicine that, if not diverted by Hamas, will reach hostages in captivity for over three months among whom many have conditions that require daily treatment. It is too painful to speculate on how little this might actually accomplish, while cabinet meetings have returned to the disgraceful circus-like atmosphere of the pre-October 7 era.
Meanwhile, day after day, the helpless hostages’ families keep repeating that there is no time left to act, that the chances of survival of their loved ones are dimming with every hour that passes, that the hostages need to be brought home now. Meanwhile, more and more of them are being murdered by Hamas – the IDF has confirmed 25 deaths so far, and the exact figure may be far higher. Meanwhile, all possible illusions on the conditions in which the remaining hostages are held have dissipated after those who returned recounted the ordeal they went through and witnessed while in captivity, and their knowledge of the sexual crimes perpetrated by the terrorists against the women and girls still in their clutches.
It was arguably unrealistic from the outset to expect a government led by a man thoroughly focused on evading responsibility and on his own political survival at the expense of virtually everything else to view as a moral imperative the rescue of hostages already betrayed by the state on October 7, and to place that imperative, in terms of urgency, above all else. What is perhaps more troubling is that by and large the Israeli public seems to have adjusted to the deprioritizing of the hostages’ release. Demonstrations on behalf of a rescue deal can still draw in tens of thousands of people across Israel, as was the case on the marking of 100 days, but in many respects life in Israel has gone back to a form of normality. People are going out again, coffee shops and restaurants in Tel Aviv are filling up again, and New Year’s Eve celebrations around Dizengoff Square were plentiful and loud. They went on all night around the large blindfolded teddy bears still sitting on nearby benches whose display back in October had been meant to represent Israeli children kidnapped by Hamas. Television and radio programs, while still extensively covering the war, are back to the prewar punctuation of commercial breaks with spots no longer burdened by the advertisers’ perceived duty to make subtle or unsubtle references to “the situation” or ensuring viewers that “together we will win.” Entertainment – theater shows, cinema, live music – is back in business.
Most significantly, despite the families’ best effort, the bulk of the population has not acted to demand the immediate release of the hostages, whatever the cost. The formidable protest movement against the so-called judicial reform that stormed the country last year did not repeat itself on behalf of the hostages. The astounding mobilization of the civil society in countless acts of solidarity toward the victims and the displaced in the wake of the October 7 Hamas onslaught has not been mirrored by any mass mobilization focused on the return of the hostages.
The form of normality that Israel has gone back to in the midst of a war that still claims casualties daily raises the question of what normality should consist in under the current circumstances: people moving on after a handful of weeks and resuming the regular actions and interactions of social life, or relentless popular mobilization demanding day after day that the government fulfil its most compelling moral obligation of not forsaking those citizens a second time after it utterly failed to protect them in the largest massacre inflicted on the country since its creation?
What is at stake is more than the fate of each individual who remains at the mercy of Hamas’s savagery in Gaza. What is at stake is Israel’s soul and moral fabric, Israel’s foundational vow to embrace life and exist as a safe harbor for the entirety of its citizenry. As both Israel’s government and people now seem to have all but abandoned the hostages, another – terrifying – question arises: what will be Israel’s raison d’être tomorrow?