Kenneth Jacobson

Winning the War and Freeing the Hostages

As the war against Hamas continues, the Israeli government is insisting that the best way to free the hostages is to increase the military pressure on Hamas. They cite the fact that already over 100 hostages have been freed as Israel besieges the terrorist group. 

Others, including families of those held hostage, argue that freeing the hostages should be the number one priority and even that Israeli military actions might endanger the remaining hostages held by Hamas. 

In the midst of these different perspectives, the Jewish People Policy Institute asked a binary question in one of its public opinion surveys. They gave the public two scenarios to choose from: one, the hostages are returned but Hamas remains in power; two, the hostages are not returned but Hamas is no longer in power. 

A significant plurality opted for the second scenario in which Hamas is ousted but the hostages are not returned. 

This is a finding which has layers of history and emotions behind it. Going back to the difficult three years when Gilad Shalit was held by Hamas, the overwhelming majority of Israelis demanded the government do more to free him, including, if necessary, the release of Palestinian prisoners who may have committed violent acts against Israelis. 

The logic that was often cited during that difficult time was that the majority of Israelis identified with the family of the kidnapped soldier and recognized that it could be their child who was being held rather than Shalit. And if it were their kin, they would insist the government do everything to free him, including taking risks with Israeli security by releasing future potential terrorists.

In the end, Israel obtained Shalit’s release but gave up 1,300 Palestinian prisoners, including Yahya Sinwar, who is currently the Hamas leader in Gaza, and others who committed deadly attacks against Israelis. 

Today’s situation is so different. First, it is not one Israeli being held but over 134. Moreover, the trauma of people being seized from their homes and held hostage pervades Israeli society. The sense that Israeli leaders have a moral obligation to return the hostages safely is powerful. 

Secondly, all this comes after the trauma of October 7. As much as Israelis could emotionally associate themselves with the innocent individuals being held in Gaza and what they must be going through mentally as well as physically after more than four months of captivity, there is nothing theoretical or abstract about Hamas staying in power. 

For most Israelis, as reflected in the binary question of JPPI, it is not only the deep scars of October 7 which are far from healing, but the perspective, and a visceral one, that if Hamas is not eliminated, it could happen all over again, as Hamas leaders promised, and be a perpetual part of Israeli life. 

The very fact that JPPI asked the question as it did reflects the uncertainty at best as to whether the government’s theme that it could both return the hostages and eliminate Hamas was achievable. Even more uncertain is the logic that it is military pressure on Hamas that gives the best chance of returning hostages. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of Israelis would like to believe that the government’s assessment of the interconnectedness of the two issues is accurate. The question was intended to force people to choose in case both are not achievable.

The public opinion answer is instructive as to the mindset of the Israeli body politic; the trauma of October 7 is deeply embedded in the psyche of every Israeli. It should not be taken as instructive, however, for the policies of the government as if one goal should supersede the other. Success in this war requires the attainment of both goals even as some believe they are at cross purposes. Policymakers need to focus on solutions to this conundrum even as many focus on binary choices. 

Indeed, the binary perspective in itself ignores the fact that there is a wide spectrum in between; that is why there are negotiations. The focus on binary choices ultimately further divides the public and plays into the hands of the enemy. 

Whether both goals can be realized remains uncertain. What does seem certain is that Israel cannot afford to give up on either of these goals. It will be intolerable if the war ends with Hamas still in power, but it would also be intolerable if Hamas were toppled but the hostages were not returned.

Let us hope that those in authority in Israel are doing all they can to obtain the quick release of all the hostages even while they figure out a way to ensure that doing so won’t prevent them from pursuing the larger vital priority of ultimately eliminating the Hamas threat from the south.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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