Neri Zilber: Inside Israeli Politics During Wartime

Available Downloads

This transcript is from a CSIS podcast published on October 31, 2023. Listen to the podcast here.

Jon Alterman: Neri Zilber is a journalist based in Tel Aviv, an advisor to Israel Policy Forum, and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Neri, welcome to Babel.

Neri Zilber: Thank you, Jon. Good to be with you.

Jon Alterman: I've heard a number of people say that Joe Biden is now the most popular politician in Israel. Do you sense that? And what do you sense it gets him?

Neri Zilber: Biden is definitely by far the most popular politician in Israel, especially amongst the Jews, for everything he's done over the past three weeks. Obviously, your listeners are probably aware of the very strong, both rhetorical and military, positions he's taken since the outbreak of war. After the October 7th Hamas assault on southern Israel, he very quickly came out in support of Israel and also very clearly warned Hezbollah, Iran, and various other Iranian proxies all around the region, in his words, "Don't. Don't get involved." So that was rhetorically. And then obviously militarily, moving massive, massive assets into the region, whether U.S. carrier strike groups, Marines, or defenses and the like. So, in and of itself, that was remarkable, both in just the quantity and the speed of a U.S. presidential administration taking those actions in defense of a close ally like Israel.

But also, he came here. He came here a week and a half ago. The Israeli public saw a U.S. president during wartime coming here and very clearly embracing both Israel and really, the public, and they responded.

Jon Alterman: What does that get him?

Neri Zilber: What does it get him? I think strategically, if you look at U.S. policy in the Middle East, he didn't have a choice but to take this forceful action, to my mind, not only due to the fact that he and almost every other previous administration has said, "A core U.S. national security interest is the security of Israel." This was a very, very hairy time for Israel just in terms of the basic security, if not, survival. I mean, it may sound overblown, but that was the feeling, really, on October 7th and in the aftermath.

So, in and of itself, it's a reaffirmation of that commitment. And then also, U.S. posture in the region. If he doesn't come to the aid of Israel in its most dire moment, arguably since its founding, then America's other Arab allies will further question U.S. commitment to them if they come under an attack by various Iranian proxies.

Jon Alterman: The U.S. government has been increasingly vocal about the need to have an endgame in Gaza and that Israel has to fight at the beginning with the end in mind. How is that resonating in Israel?

Neri Zilber: It has resonated, and I reported on this for the Financial Times. We took a hard look at what Israel was at least trying to plan in terms of the endgame, both an exit strategy for its troops from Gaza, as well as what Gaza would look like post-war. Also, we asked if the inclination, at least by some Israeli leaders in the direct aftermath of October 7th, was just to send in the tanks and then figure it out afterward. I think Benjamin Netanyahu's national security advisor, Tzachi Hanegbi, had a line in that first week that said, "We don't know what's going to be in Gaza the day after the war, but we definitely know what won't be in Gaza the day after the war." That's a nice soundbite. As sound policy, it's questionable.

So, what you saw really when this emergency unity government was formed, and really the formation of the war cabinet that is actually prosecuting the war on the Israeli side with Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, two opposition politicians but also two former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chiefs of staff joining the war cabinet. Their two core demands were to precisely figure out, "Okay, how do we extricate ourselves from Gaza when our objectives are met? And what will a post-war order for Gaza be like?"

To the best of my understanding, the Israeli system, both the official military system, but also outside the official system, are trying to figure out what the best course of action will be. No decisions haven't been made yet, but as some people told me, figuring out an endgame for Gaza should very closely be tied to the actual prosecution of a ground offensive. And so, you have to figure out what you want to see on the other side, to figure out what you want to do currently on the ground.

Jon Alterman: I remember after 9/11, Israeli counsel to the Bush administration was really important to the Bush administration. Ariel Sharon had a very strong relationship with President George W. Bush, and a lot of it was based on Israel’s experience fighting terror. The United States now has spent twenty years fighting insurgencies in the Middle East. I think the Americans’ view is that they have a lot to say to Israel that’s relevant about fighting insurgencies. Do you think Israelis are receptive to that now, or might they grow more receptive over time, or is there a sense that the U.S. experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places just isn’t relevant?

Neri Zilber: So, I think the Israeli system is very receptive for the simple fact that they have to be receptive, given the massive amount, like we said, of U.S. diplomatic, political, and military support in this grave moment. Things here would look very different right now if the Biden Administration had not taken those steps, and that's a fact.

I think Israel very much understands that even far-right wing Israeli politicians, who a few weeks ago were poo-pooing Biden Administration comments about this or that issue, now realize that Israel is a lot more reliant on America on a whole host of issues than even they wanted to understand and admit prior to October 7th.

And we've seen reports of you know, not just U.S. generals, but also obviously close advisors like Tony Blinken and Lloyd Austin coming here and spending several hours sitting with the war cabinet and other senior officials, you know, trying to figure out exactly how this war is going to play out.

So, there is receptivity. Are the lessons from 9/11 and the past 20 years of America's wars in the Middle East a one-for-one comparison? I have my doubts. I think there’s a huge difference between expeditionary wars thousands of miles away from home, like America launched in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places, and what Israelis consider a battle, as they say, for our home.

I'm sitting in Tel Aviv. The border of Gaza is 40 minutes down the road, right? And the thousands of Hamas terrorists and commandos that flooded across the Gaza-Israel frontier, it took them only a few minutes to reach the kibbutzim and moshavim communities of southern Israel.

And so, I think in terms of both strategic assessment and strategic risk, and also just motivation by Israel to prosecute this war, I think that's very different than what we saw post-9/11. There may be lessons learned in terms of urban fighting and the U.S. experience in Iraq, but again, here as well, there's a huge difference between, sending in soldiers and tanks where some of the soldiers may live 30 minutes away.

It takes the Air Force just a few minutes to take off from a base and reach Gaza. So also, in terms of military tactics and operations, it's a different proposition. But, we should say, Israel should figure out how it wants to prosecute this war, what it wants to see on the other side of it, and not go like, perhaps as America did after 9/11, seeking revenge against enemies that did great harm to it, and then indefinite occupation, indefinite quagmire, in enemy territory fighting an insurgency. That’s one result Israel does not want to see.

Jon Alterman: What's the Israeli reaction to the images of the war? Is it a sense of, look, we've seen war before, we fought wars before, this is what wars are like? Or is there sort of a sense that maybe the civilian casualties are not helping Israel in the longer term, or is there a sense that it's just inevitable?

Neri Zilber: So, I'll preface my answer with the images we saw on October 7th from southern Israel, just in terms of the Israeli casualties and what was done to the vast majority of Israeli civilians, including babies, children, women, and the like, was nothing Israel had ever experienced before. Israel has a long history with conflicts and wars going back even before its founding. So, in and of itself, that was very jarring, very shocking.

A lot of those communities and kibbutzim and moshavim on what they call the Gaza envelope, basically the frontier of Israel with Gaza, were very left-wing. A lot of peace activists were either slaughtered or are being held right now in Hamas tunnels as hostages. So again, that in and of itself, very jarring, especially to the Israeli center or left.

In terms of the images coming out of Gaza, look, it depends on which Israeli you talk to. I imagine, and I've heard this first-hand, some more right-wing or ideological or hardline Israelis say, you know, "Good. They had it coming. You know, more needs to be done. Not enough damage is coming out of Gaza.” The more reasonable Israelis say, "Look, we have a lot of empathy and sympathy for noncombatants and civilians in Gaza that are living under the yoke of this dictatorial, extremist regime, Hamas, that has controlled their lives now for over 15 years. But there's no real alternative because Hamas very purposefully puts its military installations either in or under or next to civilian infrastructure, like hospitals and mosques and schools and the like.”

And this is not an Israeli talking point; it’s a fact. It's a very well-known fact, you know, Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, underneath it is Hamas' main military command and control center. I know that first-hand, not from Israeli sources.

So, all that being said, you know, obviously, it's a very difficult situation. But for the Israelis, they say, "Look, this war was imposed on us." And again, we can talk about Israel-Gaza policy going back to the Hamas takeover in 2007. But the Israelis, you know, intuitively understand that even if they're not privy to all the ins and outs of the policy, and that, you know, there's no choice. This is a war of no choice that was imposed on us, and, you know, our hearts may go out to the Gazan people. Again, that may be a minority position amongst Israelis at this point given what happened on October 7th, but really, there is overwhelming wall-to-wall support for the war and also, by the way, for a ground offensive, which, will make things in Gaza, I imagine, much more difficult than what we've seen over the past three weeks.

Jon Alterman: As you remember, as well as I do. The first Intifada eventually led to the Oslo Accords. What do you think would need to happen for the current war to lay the groundwork for some sort of political settlement?

Neri Zilber: I have heard, not publicly, but in my conversations with some, Palestinian officials, and both Israeli analysts and also international analysts, the understanding that, look, this war will eventually end somehow. All wars do come to an end. What will the other side of it look like? Not just vis-a-vis Gaza or Israel-Gaza relations such as they may be, but the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And you hear these voices, again not publicly, say, "This has to be an opportunity to really rethink the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” not just through the prism of Israeli policy, although that's hugely, hugely important. So a lot of them say, "Look, under this current far-right Israeli government, not too much hope for a shift in policy say, vis-a-vis the West Bank and, you know, the continuing expansion of West Bank settlements, but a new and future Israeli government that will almost certainly be more centrist and more moderate, maybe there will be movement and a deeper appreciation that the status quo clearly did not hold in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” no matter what Benjamin Netanyahu said just a month ago at the UN, that “We're resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. And yeah, there might be outstanding issues with the Palestinians, but they'll eventually come around.” That blew up in the worst way possible just a few weeks ago.

And there's also an understanding that this can't just be, say, Israel-Gaza policy or even Israeli-Palestinian policy shift, as much as that is needed, but really a regional, international prism through which to actually try to improve things after this war ends.

Jon Alterman: Is there any discussion or has there been any discussion that could be invigorated about the need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority? I mean, when I interviewed the Jordanian foreign minister last week, he described it as “crumbling,” which for a diplomat, is quite a statement.

Neri Zilber: Let's not mince words. The policy by Bibi Netanyahu, who has been essentially Prime Minister of Israel since 2009, was very clear. He was going to weaken the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, very purposefully so. No peace talks, no negotiations. Begrudgingly giving aid, but usually taking away aid, supporting more settlements, while he was indirectly negotiating with Hamas via Qatar, Egypt, and UN mediation. He was very willing to give suitcases of cash to Hamas and other economic, financial, and humanitarian inducements for Gaza, because they fired rockets prior to October 7th. That was what they were doing, negotiations via rocket. They extracted concessions from Israel, whereas the actual moderates, the proper moderates in the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority, were essentially taken for granted, shunted aside. Security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority still continues to this day, and that was essentially taken as a given.

So again, if we're talking about a real paradigm shift in Israeli-Palestinian relations, I think it has to start with the understanding that you have to support the moderates and you have to reform the PA. That's also an onus on the Palestinians themselves. There are people working on various ideas. One idea is that the Palestinian Authority will move into Gaza and retake control post-war after Israel “destroys Hamas”. As one Palestinian told me, "Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, can barely control Ramallah these days. How is he going to control two million people in Gaza?" If that's an end goal, then you have to start working now to actually support the Palestinian Authority, you know, led by Mahmoud Abbas or not to actually do the job. Easier said than done, which is why it's so difficult to actually put together a coherent post-war plan.

Jon Alterman: Is there an Arab role in this? What do you think the future of Israel's relationships with Arab states is going to be? Does the need to strengthen the Palestinian side as you've described it, provide an avenue for a different focus for Israeli- Arab relations?

Neri Zilber: I believe so, I think the Israeli public has been shocked at the Arab reaction, both on the governmental level and just the public to the war in Gaza. The assumption here by many, which was clearly wrong, was that the Arab world, and especially the Arab leaders, don't really care about the Palestinians, especially the Gulf Arabs.

We've seen their statements. Very, very strong statements in condemnation of Israel. Now, again, it doesn't mean they're going to break off relations or cancel peace or normalization agreements, but it's taken the Israeli, public and even, I'd argue, the Israeli government by surprise. Look at Türkiye and Erdogan. There was a rapprochement going on now for the past year, and now he's holding mass rallies, in Türkiye, blasting Israel as a war-criminal state, and saying that Hamas isn't a terrorist group.

So again, I think it requires a major rethink on the Israeli's part. The Palestinian issue still obviously and clearly resonates. Also, in terms of an Arab role, I think the only way Gaza will work post-war in whatever state we find it, will be with Arab equities: political, diplomatic, financial, and maybe even boots on the ground in terms of having a force that is seen as credible and legitimate amongst the local population in Gaza, actually, upholding security.

So, I imagine these are talks that are ongoing.

If Israel wants to get there, then it will likely have to make a serious 180-degree shift in its bigger Palestinian policy, to actually show both the Palestinian public and the Arab world that, "While we may have had a major issue with a terrorist group running the Gaza Strip, which now we're taking care of, this isn't a war on all Palestinians, and that our face, as Israel, is towards actual peace and coexistence. Not war on all fronts."

Jon Alterman: As I don't have to tell you, Israelis have tremendous respect for their military and intelligence institutions, which arguably had a profound failure on October 7th. What do you think the military and the intelligence apparatus in Israel is going to have to do to regain trust? I've heard people speak where they seem to have an instinct to blame the politicians. Do you think they are going to be able to stick this to the politicians? How does this play out?

Neri Zilber: In fairness, all of the security chiefs have gotten up there and said, "This is a massive, massive failure, and we are responsible for it." That’s a growing assumption, and it's almost a certainty. A lot of these security chiefs in posts right now will resign voluntarily at the end of this war, whenever it ends. I'd argue rightfully so.

I'll say two things. Number one, there's huge anger, from within the Israeli security establishment and the public about how this could happen. This massive intelligence and military apparatus was overwhelmed by a few thousand Hamas commandos. They didn't see Toyota pickup trucks and motorcycles coming at that border fence in Gaza. It wasn't stopped.

It took hours for forces to actually respond. I mean, we all know what happened on October 7th. The trust has been broken. They're trying to mend it and there is kind of a rallying-around-the-flag effect now. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have mobilized for the reserves. There are reports of over 100% reservists reporting to their units. The biggest shock, aside from the actual atrocities and barbarity perpetrated on October 7th, is the fact that it actually was able to happen. That was not viewed as even possible. In terms of military and political relations, there are strains. We saw it even over the past 24 hours. Bibi Netanyahu very clearly wants to place all the blame on the security establishment and the intelligence services. However, the one actually managing it, overseeing this entire system for the better part of the past 15 years was Netanyahu; he should take responsibility.

I'll just say that everybody got this wrong. A month ago, I was sitting in a briefing with senior Israeli security officials and they were talking about all kinds of things. They were talking about the Iranian nuclear threat; they were talking about Hezbollah a little bit. They were talking about various kinds of shiny, new billion-dollar weapon systems. Then during the Q& A session, I raised my hand to ask, "Why are we seeing renewed protests and riots on the Gaza border? Why haven't you actually talked about Gaza?"

In terms of priorities and just, what people here say, you know, the arrogance that led to complacency, right? And overconfidence. they essentially did not take Hamas seriously enough. They got it very, very absolutely wrong.

Jon Alterman: There’s a big focus on the West Bank, which arguably is an even more complicated security problem for Israel because Palestinians and Israelis are living cheek- by-jowl and not separated by the same kind of a border that separates Israel from Gaza. How worried are you that the West Bank is tinder that is going to burst into flame?

Neri Zilber: Extremely worried. The West Bank has not been calm. It's less in the headlines. However, since October 7th, 100 Palestinians have been killed either in clashes with Israeli security forces or by extremist settlers who are taking the opportunity to, do the exact wrong, moral, and illegal thing, which is attack Palestinians.

It's very concerning. We've also seen demonstrations not only against Israel and in support of Hamas but also against the Palestinian Authority, chanting against President Abbas by name. It's hugely concerning, with the one caveat that it could have been worse. It could have been worse. The protests could have been bigger, the unrest could have been wider. The Palestinian security forces are still unified and maintain some semblance of order. If you remember back to the beginning of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s the Palestinian Authority security forces and the Fatah Party militia writ large, joined in that terror war against Israel. We had not yet seen that. We have not yet seen that, and I think that’s a credit to the PA, and the PA security forces. Again, that wasn't a given.

It really needs to be tracked very closely. As yet, things are, I hate to use the word “relatively stable”, because they're not stable at all, but it hasn't gone to complete chaos, complete violence, and complete breakdown yet.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask you an unfair question, which is to use a crystal ball and to answer, where do you think Israeli politics are going to be in six months? Presumably military operations will be in a very different phase, presumably, there will be a great deal of progress on accountability for the failures of October 7th. You talked about how a lot of the current security leadership is likely to move on. What happens to the right-wing trend in Israel? What happens to the center? Is the left invigorated at all or does the left remain humiliated, embarrassed by the massacres of the kibbutzim and moshavim in the Gaza envelope? 

Neri Zilber: You know, nobody knows what's going to happen here tomorrow, let alone in six months. I'll say a couple of things. Number one, Netanyahu is almost certainly finished. He's still walking around and talking and trying to act like he has a political future. I don't see how he survives this. In and of itself, that will be a tectonic shift in Israeli politics.

I don't think this current government is long for the world. Again, they were in charge and also by the way, not just on October 7th, but in the weeks afterward in the near total absence of governmental support and responsiveness. It's been almost entirely civil society and regular Israelis filling the void in terms of helping the displaced and gathering donations. It really is. They say, " We have a terrible government but a great society." That's kind of the unofficial motto, “great nation, terrible government.” So, I don't think they are long for the world because they were responsible. That's maybe on the more positive side of the ledger.

On the less positive side of the ledger, October 7th set back Arab-Jewish relations between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River by decades. You hear it not just from the kind of right-wing Israelis but even centrist Israelis, even left-wing Israelis or formerly left-wing Israelis, who were shocked. They didn’t think that a terrorist group like Hamas and the thousands of presumably regular Gazans who flooded through the holes in the security fence could commit the atrocities they committed.

It'll take a lot of work to repair. I'll just say for your listeners it really is interesting to look at a publication like Haaretz, which is very left-leaning in Israeli terms, and just see what their columnists and writers are putting out. I'm not saying they're all of a sudden right-wingers, but they're putting out, "Okay this war, is it just war and Hamas needs to be taken care of?" At the same time, you can still be in favor of ending the occupation and anti-settlements and the like. That'll be a very fine line to walk.

My hope is that, after this war is over a more centrist Israeli government will rise and through that a lot more things will be possible in terms of positive change here and marginalizing the far-right which Bibi Netanyahu brought into the center of the political map. Hopefully, keeping alive the prospects for actual peace and actual coexistence here, which has been the flag of the Israeli left. Hopefully, that wasn't destroyed on October 7th. By the way, even if Hamas is destroyed at the end of this war maybe they would have won the kind of bigger campaign, to make sure that there was never actual peace in the Holy Land. People who actually care about the people living here need to push back against that, regardless of the ongoing war or as part of the ongoing war on the ground militarily.

Jon Alterman: Is there any contemplation in Israel that this war might not end in victory, it might end in a sort of messy, unsatisfying stalemate the way a lot of American military operations have ended in the last several decades?

Neri Zilber: There is a concern arguably unlike any in my lifetime. But at the same time, we also have to be realistic. October 7th, as one very senior Israeli politician told me the other day, was obviously a clear military defeat. But it wasn't because Hamas was a military stronger than the IDF.

It just was the IDF was overconfident, arrogant, didn't deploy its forces properly, and didn't read the intelligence properly. Now that the entire IDF, security services, and the country is on a war footing, it has enough firepower, resources, and smarts to actually defeat a terror army like Hamas in a very limited territory like Gaza. That's the hope at least.

Jon Alterman: But the issue from my perspective, is in the United States, one could argue that the military has fought several wars over several decades, but it's been a long time since it decisively won one, not because it didn’t have smarts and firepower, but because the tasks it was trying to accomplish went beyond the military realm. It went beyond battles. It went toward the will of the adversary and all sorts of other things. The fact that the Taliban are now in power in Afghanistan is not because the United States didn't put enough money and troops into Afghanistan.

Neri Zilber: Right. Look, it's a well-taken point. Come talk to me in two or three years if the IDF is still sitting in the middle of Gaza City fighting a bloody insurgency, then the public mood may shift. But again, going back to what we were talking about earlier, there's a huge difference between an expeditionary war in faraway Afghanistan or Vietnam before that and fighting what many people here view as an existential struggle against a terrorist enemy, very literally on your border, just across the fence from your community.

Presumably, the staying power of both the public and the military and the government will be longer standing than America's examples. America could have kept dumping money and personnel into these wars, but the public support for doing so back home, whether in Washington or all across America, was really what decided the policy shift and the withdrawals. As long as the Israeli public believes that the war aims are both achievable and worthwhile, you'll still maintain support depending on what happens on the ground in Gaza.

Jon Alterman: Neri Zilber, I'm going to take you up on that offer to talk in two or three years, and I look forward to that. Thank you very much for joining us on Babel. 

Neri Zilber: My pleasure, Jon. And hopefully, I have better news in two or three years.