Armed Conflict Foreign Relations & International Law

Lawfare Daily: Natan Sachs on the Latest Israeli Political Crisis

Benjamin Wittes, Natan Sachs, Jen Patja
Wednesday, June 12, 2024, 8:00 AM
Discussing the resignation of Benny Gantz from Israel's war Cabinet.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Brookings

Natan Sachs is the Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He joined Lawfare's Editor in Chief, Benjamin Wittes, to discuss the resignation of Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz, the fate of Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government, and Israeli perceptions of the Gaza war.

To receive ad-free podcasts, become a Lawfare Material Supporter at www.patreon.com/lawfare. You can also support Lawfare by making a one-time donation at https://givebutter.com/c/trumptrials.

Click the button below to view a transcript of this podcast. Please note that the transcript was auto-generated and may contain errors.

 

Transcript

Natan Sachs: In some senses, Gantz's resignation gives also a sense that he and Eisenkot estimate that, in the main, the war is over. That doesn't mean people aren't dying right now --- they are, and the numbers are staggering, of course --- but that most of the maneuvering has already ended, actually, and that the achievable goals from a military perspective in the short term have already been achieved or not achieved.

Benjamin Wittes: It's the Lawfare Podcast. I'm Benjamin Wittes with Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Natan Sachs: In the Gaza Strip, we're seeing Hamas dramatically diminished, but still on its feet in some places. And most importantly, in the places that have been cleared by Hamas, nothing has been put in their place.

And therefore, you see the return of Hamas or Hamas-affiliated people, but men with guns and the only men with guns are probably affiliated with Hamas or could be easily co-opted by them.

Benjamin Wittes: We're talking Israeli politics, eight months into the war, and following the resignation from the government of its leading moderate member.

So, let's start with who the heck Benny Gantz is and why people care if he just quit the Israeli government.

Natan Sachs: So Benny Gantz is --- was --- the chief of staff of the Israeli military, which is a big deal in Israel. Many people in the United States couldn't name the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but in Israel, everyone can.

And moreover, that position is stronger than the joint chiefs of staff --- the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There is only one three-star general in the Israeli military, and that is the chief of staff. There's no four stars. So, he is the one soldier in command, or officer in command, of the whole military.

And so it's a very central position, especially for a country with a very large military and widespread conscription. Benny Gantz was chief of staff, then retired, and he joined politics just in recent years as someone going very much for the center, becoming the main challenger to Netanyahu. Fast forward to October 7th. When the horrific attack happened on October 7th, there was immediately a call throughout Israel for national emergency government that would bring in figures from the opposition.

Benny Gantz, who by now is a former defense minister, not just chief of staff, was one of them. Yair Lapid, former prime minister, was another. Lapid demanded that the far right be excluded from the coalition. Benny Gantz agreed to join under a different arrangement, which was the setup of a mini war cabinet with three official members: Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Galant, another former general, and Benny Gantz, and three observers as well.

And they had the power, in essence, of commander in chief of the military. So when Benny Gantz leaves the coalition, it's one third of the commander in chief of the military, and a very important voice moderating some of what Netanyahu wanted to do, although not always on the dover side.

It's not simple --- not clear cut. And moreover, a voice of the putative opposition. If you look at polls today, the likely next prime minister would be either Benny Gantz or Benjamin Netanyahu. And therefore, Netanyahu's main challenger --- not the only potential one, but the main one --- him being inside government meant that this was a consensus kind of government.

That quelled some of the demonstrations, gave people a sense that this is an Israeli government going to war. Now that he is out, along with his partner, Gadi Eisenkot and others, it's a very different beast. This is back to being a right to far right coalition, very much a Netanyahu coalition with the opposition in opposition.

Benjamin Wittes: Netanyahu has enough votes in the Knesset in this right to far right coalition to exist without Benny Gantz. The government existed before Gantz entered it, and now Gantz has left, and it exists without him. First of all: why did he leave? He did have this position of extraordinary influence as part of the war cabinet. Why did he give that up?

Natan Sachs: For the past several years, Israel has been in political tumult, as we've discussed on this podcast many times. And in one of those iterations, we saw another national unity government between Netanyahu and Gantz, where they agreed to rotate as prime ministers. Benny Gantz was not only defense minister, he was also alternate prime minister, a position invented for that coalition, a constitutional position invented for that coalition.

And as many people warned Gantz, Netanyahu fooled him. Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset before that rotation could happen, and he never became prime minister. So he was very wary of joining a Netanyahu government again, and moreover, many of his voters and potential voters were extremely wary of cooperating with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu himself is the political issue of Israel in the past half decade. Are you pro Bibi, anti-Bibi? It's not really deeper than that. There is, of course, left and right, which is especially --- means especially --- in Israel, hawkish versus dovish, but it's become Bibi anti-Bibi, including many hawkish people in the anti-Bibi camp.

So Gantz joining was actually a very big deal. Him agreeing to join the Netanyahu government was really a product of what was immediately seen as the biggest national trauma since the founding of the state in 1948, at least on the personal level, if not the national one. And he joined in that mood, in a sense of national unity, answering the call of many people who were eager to find some kind of consensus government.

But from the beginning, it was clear that this was supposed to be temporary. This was supposed to be for the duration of the war. He and Gadi Eisenkot, his partner, another former chief of staff, the one who succeeded him as chief of staff. I stated very clearly that this was temporary --- it was expected by the end of 2023, the beginning of 2024.

Here we are in June, polls are sliding back towards Netanyahu. He's not winning the elections, but it looks closer to inconclusive now if elections were held today. Benny Gantz, his influence, although it's formally considerable and probably has been considerable in certain junctures, has clearly not changed the whole trajectory of the war.

There's a growing sense of disappointment, deep disappointment, in the conduct of the war. And we've seen also disillusionment for Gantz, Eisenkot, and also Minister of Defense Gallant from Netanyahu's own party, the Likud, with the lack of any plan for what follows in the footsteps of the IDF entering the Gaza Strip.

So we saw a speech by Gallant, again, the minister of defense from Netanyahu's own Likud party, but a former general himself who knows Gantz and Eisenkot very well from their days in uniform --- a tumultuous relationship, I should say, but nonetheless an intimate one. Gallant, in remarkable fashion, called out the prime minister while he is defense minister --- called out the prime minister by name to make clear that he does not intend to have long-term Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, that there must be something to follow the soldiers, to follow the boots that would allow an alternative to Hamas. We see the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, entering again and again to the same territory, often devastated territory, in the Gaza Strip, with no clear alternative for what replaces Hamas if it is defeated, as Netanyahu constantly claims. So, all this has pushed Gantz towards the sense that the main war aims that are achievable in the short term have either been achieved or will not be achieved.

And two more issues I should mention. One, which is paradoxical: Not clear why he would resign now, but he and his partner Eisenkot have been pushing very strongly for the hostage deal that, among others, President Biden laid out. And the second point is a political one: The Netanyahu government is facing a deep political crisis because the non-conscription to the military of young men who are ultra-Orthodox, Jewish ultra-Orthodox, that has been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court and requires legislation by the Israeli Knesset to formalize it.

That is a perennial and extremely emotive issue for voters and especially voters who are potential voters of Gantz: centrist, secular, and national religious voters who do go to conscription and especially at a time of war. So that gives a political opportunity also for Gantz now.

Benjamin Wittes: Netanyahu's government, at least in a formal numerical sense, doesn't need Benny Gantz. Without him, I think he has 64 votes. He needs 60. And that's it. Let me frame this broadly. How stable is Netanyahu's government without Gantz? When Gantz leaves, is he thinking: I'm the guy with my hand holding the building up, and I take my hand away and it'll all fall down behind me? Or is he thinking all right, I don't want to be in this building anymore. It's going to stand for a while without me. But it's not advantageous to me. I'm not playing a role I think is useful here; Bibi will survive based on the votes of the far-right.

Natan Sachs: In normal times --- in other words, any day until October 6th --- I would have told you this coalition can continue for a long time. Over two years is the term of this Knesset. This is not normal times, obviously. After October 7th, I was asked repeatedly: is Netanyahu done as prime minister? And I said then, and I still think it's true, in any logical sense, in another context, you would say he's an ex-prime minister walking.

There is no way a prime minister, after the failure of October 7th, could stay in power. The precedent is there from 1973. Golda Meir even won an election immediately after the war, but she couldn't last in office. But this is not the same, and therefore I said I'm not predicting Netanyahu's demise, partly because I foolishly did that once before in 2019.

Netanyahu is the consummate politician we saw by the evening of October 7th itself. We saw him already revert to politics, specifically refusing to kick out the far right and go for a centrist, very consensus-based coalition with the explicit argument that when the center leaves, what will I be left with?

In other words, he was still calculating his political future, even on October 7th and October 8th. And he's an excellent politician, of course. So, all that to say that in normal times, you would expect, after October 7th, him to be out. But we're already now many months past that. And as I said, the polls are stabilizing for a defeat by Netanyahu, but perhaps not a conclusive defeat.

And therefore, there are several stressors for the coalition that could bring him down. But it's far from certain they would happen. All this to say the truthful answer, I don't know. And most people don't know. You could see the move by Gantz and Eisenkot adding a lot of pressure that would bring down this government.

It is possible. In particular, them leaving takes out the cover from the center, probably puts fuel behind or under the demonstrations, which are already pretty massive against the government and reminiscent a bit of what happened before October 7th, but now could maybe return to those levels and maybe more with people disillusioned, both with Netanyahu as the leader on October 7th and with the conduct of the war since, and it could add pressure to centrist Likud members, to the degree that there are such centrist Likud members, not in position, but in their position on Netanyahu. Yoav Gallant is the obvious one, but he is only one. As you said, five are acquired. One can speculate about who the five might be, but Netanyahu can also speculate and can give them diplomatic positions in New York and elsewhere.

Perhaps that's already happened recently. So yes, it could bring him down. It could bring him down with pressure from the Likud, from the ground level of the Likud, but he could also simply remain obstinate as he has in the past. There are two more venues of pressure. Very briefly --- if a hostage deal is concluded, for example, in short order, you would expect the very far right probably to leave the government, perhaps to bring down the coalition. That's a second step they'd have to make, but I think it's quite possible if this agreement is signed. They have called it a surrender agreement and they have made very clear that if it is signed, they will bring down Netanyahu and probably would follow suit; at least one of them would.

And you could also imagine less likely, I think, if ultra-Orthodox conscription is not formalized, and they are indeed conscripted, or the current status already, where funding is cut for some of their schools ---religious schools that do not teach English and math --- they may at some point decide they've had enough and they want a different configuration, and they can live with Benny Gantz.

It's not likely, simply because their bet is much better with Bibi. It's hard to imagine they'd get a better deal with Gantz, but never say never --- they have surprised us in the past.

Benjamin Wittes: Just to summarize: right now, we have a coalition of 64. You can imagine that going below 60, either because Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, and some other group were to leave or to defect, because the far right were to leave because there were a hostage deal that required some measure of ceasefire, or because the relationship with the ultra-Orthodox, who are distinct from the far right over conscription, cannot be managed. Is that a fair summary?

Natan Sachs: Yeah, I think those are the three avenues, and I don't mean to suggest that it's very likely any of them happens. But, if it happens, it's probably one of those three.

Benjamin Wittes: So, you described earlier that polling suggested that Netanyahu was recovering a bit from his post October 7th crash in popularity.

Go into that a little. What is the source of his rebound in the face of this quite widespread discontent with the conduct of the war? Or, why are people migrating back to him?

Natan Sachs: So it's probably a confluence of many different things. Some of it is just a regression back to where people's positions were. So what we're seeing now is not that he's winning in the polls, but more that it's going back a bit to where it was before October 7th, which is to say an advantage to the opposition, but a complex one.

If the polls, for example from just yesterday, hold, then you could imagine a Gantz government, but it would require a very complex coalition, reminiscent of the Benet Lapid coalition that would require the Ra’am party and Arab-based party in Israel, which I'm sure for Gantz himself would not be a problem, but in the context of a war would be politically more complicated.

Both for Ra’am and for the other members of the coalition, a political nightmare in other words, and of course, one that only lasted a year and a bit the last time around. So that doesn't mean a Netanyahu victory, but Netanyahu could then go to election, have them inconclusive, and continue as caretaker prime minister.

So part of it is just regression to that kind of mean, if it is a mean. The second is that Netanyahu has successfully done two things. First, managed to delay things such that people got over the shock a little bit. Israel is still very much in trauma and reliving October 7th, in particular around the issue of the hostages, and of course the fact that the war continues.

But nonetheless, for them, there is now a bit of acclimation to this terrible reality right now, and in that sense, many people return to where their votes were. And the third point, and that's a very important one. Netanyahu, I think, understood very early on that people are very disillusioned with him and that he, if he simply puts it to a vote quickly, would lose and people would replace him even at a sense of responsibility --- that he is responsible.

But on many issues, he would lose to Gantz or to someone else. But on some issues, he still retains a clear advantage. And in particular, after October 7th, the Israeli public has moved dramatically to the right in terms of security. Not necessarily on other issues, not necessarily on settlements and certainly not on building settlements in the Gaza Strip or anything like that. But on security, it is a dramatic shift.

Israelis are loathe to trust any Palestinian organization --- certainly Hamas, but even the Palestinian Authority --- with any kind of power over Israelis or ability to threaten Israelis, with the sense that what happened on October 7th can simply never be allowed to happen again, no matter what, even with what we're seeing now, the humongous international program and the huge diminishment of Israel's standing in the world, two courts in the Hague dealing with Israel or Israelis, and even major tensions with the Biden Administration that stood so closely by Israel at different points in time, starting in October and again in April. But Israelis, that lesson of October 7th is strong enough that it's not going away.

So when Netanyahu is able to frame this question as Palestinian state, yes or no, Palestinian authority, yes or no, should the Palestinian state emerge out of this, on that Israelis are categorically against it. And that is one on which he can portray himself as the one person who is able and has shown over decades to be the one able to withstand international pressure and maneuver Israel out of that, whereas people are less sure that Gantz would either be inclined to withstand that kind of pressure or able to.

And so there is a major issue of agenda-setting for a potential election, a potential campaign. And Netanyahu has been thinking about that campaign since noon on October 7th.

Benjamin Wittes: In the example precedent that you cite, in which in the opposite of Bibi, Golda Meir after the 73 war held an immediate election, but then was not able to sustain her position afterwards.

One of the things that happened, and it presaged in the American context, the 9/11 Commission, was this kind of National Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the circumstances of Israel being caught by surprise, the mechanism by which the magnitude of the failure to prevent the October 7th attack, but then also the subsequent decision to conduct the war as it has been conducted.

Has there been any serious discussion or planning for what that accountability mechanism is going to look like?

Natan Sachs: So Israel has a formal mechanism of a National Committee of Inquiry, predating 73 in fact, although back in 1956 and other events, and it's a sort of long and very prestigious kind of tradition of this.

There have been National Committees of Inquiry for many different incidents, by law chaired by someone appointed by the president of the Supreme Court, another, the chief justice of Israel, and generally that would be a justice of the Supreme Court or another judge. Netanyahu has actually been maneuvering now --- perhaps it doesn't have to be appointed by the chief justice, perhaps the president could appoint it, he's trying to maneuver what that would be.

It's important to note, just in parentheses, that it is often the government that will decide what the terms of reference are for the committee. In other words, what it's investigating exactly. And 1973 is a very apt example. In 1973, Golda Meir and her government, and it was especially Golda Meir and the Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, were held co responsible and indeed resigned.

When they appointed the commission, the Agranat Commission, a very famous one, they made it about the military operation, the failure of the intelligence and the conduct of the military itself. It was explicitly to exclude the political echelon. And that is part of what made many people extremely angry at the commission --- even more angry, than they were already at Golda and Dayan --- and demanding accountability from the political echelon, it started with one reservist officer who came from the sole position that held along the canal.

Benjamin Wittes: Yeah. And he sat outside with a sign by himself.

Natan Sachs: Exactly. Moti Ashkenazi, and then he was joined by many other reservists. So it was this reservist demonstration against Golda Meir and that's what brought it down. I should say, it brought it down with her and Dayan resigning, but not new elections. And instead the labor government, labor party, her party appointed a new prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who had conveniently been ambassador here in the United States and therefore not implicated in 73 and therefore was acceptable as Prime Minister.

Clean, exactly. So there is widespread expectation in Israel that there will be a national committee of inquiry. When that happens is of course something up to debate. Netanyahu would like that to be as late as possible. Others have demanded it much sooner. After the war is some people, many of them, many people have talked about; but in some senses, Gantt's resignation gives also a sense that he and Eisenkot estimate that in the main, the war is over.

That doesn't mean people aren't dying right now. They are, and the numbers are staggering, of course, but that most of the maneuvering has already ended actually, and that the achievable goals from a military perspective in the short term have already been achieved or not achieved. And so it's ripe for that now.

There are other inquiries. There's internal inquiries of the military itself, appointed by the chief of staff, who himself will of course be taking responsibility and will be resigning. He made that clear and some people have been calling him to fulfill that commitment. Although he just implied it, but it's very clear.

Other officers have already resigned. The chief of intelligence resigned and now we saw a brigadier general of the Gaza division resign as well. Sooner or later it will be the chief of staff too. In other words, It is up in the air but I'll just note an important difference. Israelis are still preoccupied with October 7th and the failures and what happened.

They are every day learning new stories of what happened on the many, dozens of different locations and stories of atrocities, stories of heroism. They are far less attuned to the devastation of the Gaza Strip since then during this war. There is a real epistemic difference in the way most of the world has been viewing the last eight months and how Israelis have.

Benjamin Wittes: So talk through that a little bit. What is the information that Israelis are not, by and large, seeing or processing that the rest of the world is seeing and processing?

Natan Sachs: Israelis are experiencing this war a lot more like Americans experience the war in Afghanistan or Iraq. They know about casualties of their own casualties.

They know about very bad battles, etc. And they hear about numbers. So Americans, if they were paying attention, they knew about very large numbers of Afghans, either soldiers or civilians, dying, or Iraqis dying, and sometimes in great detail. And of course, Iraq was a huge political issue, but there was nothing near the sort of intimate description of the daily life of Afghans or Iraqis with this intimate knowledge of the precise geography of what is happening in each neighborhood in Baghdad. So truly nothing like what we're seeing with Gaza. And that is a bit how Israelis are experiencing it. And so the enemy in a sense, or the population of the enemy, which is how Israelis view the Gaza Strip, they view it as a foreign statelet, not as something they are responsible for, but a Hamas statelet that they are fighting.

And this is, these are the civilians of the enemy. In that sense they, it, this accords them a very different view of it. The ability to detach themselves from the huge human cost that all of us are seeing on screens and in every report, and a fundamentally different view of what is happening. The world is seeing in enormous detail --- much, much more detail than we'd see about other wars, and Israelis in much less detail than you would see about other wars. And this is not this is not a social commentary. My point is about policy. This leads to very different policy. Israelis are often genuinely perplexed, partly because of this, and I think it's a failure of communication here, of course, and partly of the Israeli press.

They are very perplexed by a lot of the opprobrium abroad. Centrist Israelis who have been to Washington in recent months have been surprised by the level of anger among hitherto pro-Israeli officials or politicians, and very surprised. How is it that they don't --- they, the Americans --- don't understand what's going on, whereas the rest of the world thinks Israelis are not understanding what's going on because they're only looking at one side of the picture.

Benjamin Wittes: So when I look at this, I say: Bibi just got rid of the faction of his government that was urging him to accept a ceasefire and a hostage deal, and he's left only with the faction that would bring down his government if he accepted a ceasefire and hostage deal, and that means that he will not accept one even if Hamas were to, which I see no evidence that they're about to.

And that suggests to me that the war is going to go on. First of all, is there any reason to think that's wrong? And secondly, what does it mean for the Israeli polity for this war to go on for some indeterminate additional length of time?

Natan Sachs: So, the first question of “is that accurate;” I suspect so.

First, we do not have reason to believe that Sinwar, as opposed to others in Hamas, is about to accept this deal, and it's all about him at the end of the day. And Netanyahu certainly has political reasons not to risk his now shrunken coalition. I'll just caution that. It's not impossible for Hamas, but especially for Gazans, this would be a huge improvement.

This would allow a surge of aid inside the Gaza Strip, this would allow the beginning of a day after, and Hamas would still be there and still enormously diminished, but nonetheless still there. And it's not a bad deal for them, and for Israel, it is probably a good deal as well. Most Israelis support it.

It would allow the return of the hostages, which is an extremely emotive issue in Israel. It's really hard to emphasize. Israelis know the names and faces of most of the 120 remaining hostages, some, many of them probably not alive, and they care about that deeply. There is also reason to think they would go for it if not for politics.

Could Netanyahu make that political leap? Probably not. But Netanyahu usually in the past has used a centrist as the foil. They're the ones who are demanding it. I'm the one standing up to it. When he lacks that and he finds himself to a certain degree on the sort of almost left flank of his coalition, it's not impossible that he then finds himself having to assume that role.

And he may calculate that without any very extensive military objectives remaining that are achievable in an immediate sense with the military demanding it, Rafah being the main last one. He may opt for that even if, for example, he has to choose elections himself. If he thinks he can frame it correctly and go to elections, either hoping for an inconclusive result or maybe to surprise with a victory. Never rule it out. Again, I don't think it's likely, but I wouldn't rule it out completely. I don't think a deal is completely impossible, although I would surely not bet on it. Certainly the administration here in Washington is very much pushing for it. They did not want Gantz to leave right now. They were hoping it might still happen and they are still working at it.

Secretary Blinken was there --- just arrived just yesterday. I was talking before about how Israelis perceive this whole war very differently and that also leads them, and led them since October 7th, already to this feeling that this war might be a generational one, a very long one, not that it would last dozens of years, but it might last many years.

And that is their fate in a sense that was forced upon them, in their eyes, on October 7th. That is, of course, very different from the sense of acute crisis surrounding the whole issue, and just how enormously salient this issue is in the minds of so many people around the world, including here in the United States.

When Israel was founded, Israel was very small geographically and was very small in population size back then. The national security posture, strategy that was formulated from the very beginning by David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister, was that in such a small country, with such a small economy, the military would necessarily be reliant on reservists.

And that means that the regular army would bear the brunt of an immediate surprise attack. And then the reservists would come in behind them and push the enemy back. And that meant that the country, the economy, could not last a long war. And so the war had to be short, quick, very offensive in terms of tactics, push behind enemy lines as fast as possible, therefore rely on armored corps, rely on air force, not on static defenses. Try to have very good intelligence to try and foresee any kind of surprise attack and that the war therefore needs to end very fast and ends, needs to end very fast also for other reasons, which is that the world was watching all the time and there was a stopwatch that began immediately and would run out pretty quickly.

And that was true in 1956, which lasted some hundred hours or something. And it was true in the six day war, which lasted of course, six days. And 1973 you mentioned was a matter of, I believe, 19 days. Here we are eight months later. The economy has suffered. Israel is much, much wealthier than it was in prior decades, so it can withstand it, but it is a very big toll on the economy as well, and more importantly, a big toll socially.

The reservists are, in the end of the day, not that many, and they are the backbone of the economy, and many of them have been in endless months of reserve duty, of the hardest kind, of course, and seeing the worst kinds of images. And I'm saying this last, but it's really not last. The horrific devastation in the Gaza Strip and the numbers of dead there also mean the internet, that international patience with Israel, if it were not for President Biden would have run out many months ago.

And even with President Biden is in a very different state already. Here is policy difference that stems from the fact that Israelis and others abroad are seeing a very different reality. I think there is an underappreciation inside Israel of what cost it is to their standing that simply by the fact that this war is continuing.

Benjamin Wittes: Yeah, so let's take a very specific example of this, which is the rescue of four hostages over the weekend. Where, on the Sunday talk shows in the United States, the overwhelming discussion of this rescue, which was celebrated in Israel, with dancing on the beaches, and the overwhelming discussion was of the number of casualties suffered on the Palestinian side in the course of the operation.

The Gaza Health Ministry claimed that 270 people had been killed. The Israeli the IDF said it was fewer than a hundred, but it was a fair number, and a bunch of them were clearly civilians. And it seems to me a very good example of the point you're making, that the reaction in Israel is first of all jubilation with respect to the four rescued hostages, mitigated mostly by the loss of a single soldier in the operation.

And the reaction of the rest of the world is a kind of proportion, a sort of head scratching about the proportionality with respect to probably too credulous an adoption of the Hamas number, but a sense that the denominator is really large either way. And of course, nobody is in a position to figure out how many of the Palestinian dead are actually civilians versus Hamas fighters.

And so you get into this ultimately unavailing discussion of, okay, whose fault is it that these people were killed, given that they are. Be that the hostages are being held in a residential facility surrounded by civilians. And so I'm going to just throw that as a lump in your direction and it seems to me a very pointed example with reference to specific incidents of the point that you're making.

Natan Sachs: Yeah. And I'll just point out, let me try to explain the Israeli perspective, although not necessarily adopting it. But Israelis viewed the Gaza Strip as a foreign statelet governed by a radical Islamist organization that had for decades made clear it continues to fight Israel.

And so Israelis, in a very fundamental way, did not see themselves responsible for what is happening in the Gaza Strip any more than Americans see themselves responsible for what is happening inside Cuba. Now Americans influence what happens inside Cuba in many different ways. There's an embargo on Cuba, but Americans fundamentally for many decades now have believed there is a government in Cuba that has decided to have a hostile posture towards the United States.

Of course, many governments in the United States administrations have had different approaches to it, and they are ultimately responsible for Cubans. We could do things differently. We could have a debate about it. But the ultimate responsibility for the fate of Cubans is with lies with the Cuban government.

This is very much how Israelis viewed the situation in the Gaza Strip. That the body responsible for the Gaza Strip and for Gazans fundamentally before October 7th was the government of Gaza that claimed to be the legitimate government of the Palestinian Authority governed by Hamas. There was indeed a blockade, and it's really an Egyptian blockade, but they had a border with an Arab country, Egypt.

If they cannot find a way to have an open border with Egypt, that is probably their fault. And if they want to lay down their arms and not fight with Israel, then there wouldn't be a blockade. So this is the Israeli position towards Gaza even before. When October 7th happens, that's amplified. A hundredfold here is a foreign statelet that has attacked Israel, invaded Israel with thousands of well-trained troops, clear plans for massacre, that are carried out.

And that leads Israelis to first be completely, utterly oblivious, but also completely perplexed if they hear of the notion that Israel was still occupying the Gaza Strip before October 7th, because how on earth could an army of thousands of well-trained troops invade Israel from a place that it was occupying?

And secondly, to be perplexed and often extremely angry at the idea that they are now responsible for the logistics and supply of the enemy population, even if there was aid going in, and I think there should be much more, of course. But for Israelis, there's often this kind of sense of that is an enemy country with an enemy government --- talk to the enemy government.

So now fast forward. This is part of what contributes to what I think has been an absolutely horrific eight months and the slow coming around of the Israeli government on some of these issues, not remotely enough on some. And you see this operation for Israelis, it is an unmitigated moment of joy for most of them.

A release of hostages whose names and images they knew very well. In fact, one of them was quite famous abroad too. And also in a heroic, a very heroic, extremely difficult operation that also brought back a sense of success and pride which had been so diminished on October 7th itself. That the cost was terrible in terms of civilian lives, again, I think most Israelis look at it and simply do not understand. First, how many Somalis were killed when the Blackhawk went down? Afghans or Pakistanis were killed in various operations when Bin Laden was taken out. What happened? Most Americans have no idea because it is not usually the way people think about their military operations.

They believe this was a completely, highly legitimate objective of this operation. And had they not been fired upon, taking out civilians, of course they wouldn't have fired back. So I'm not getting into the legality or even the morality of it. I'm saying from the perspective of most Israelis, it's not just that they argue and they think the talk show is a bit wrong. They do not understand the question. They think people have lost their minds. They are fighting a war. War is terrible. And that is often the lines you will hear. And if you have a problem with it, Hamas can on any day put down its arms. Now, one can critique this position. I have critiqued this position many times, but I think it's foolish to simply brush it aside because Gaza is not simply a matter of law and order.

If it were that, if we're simply an occupied territory by Israel in the past 16 years, it would be a very different scenario. But this, the assumption that Israel is at full control of the Gaza Strip was preposterous and was demonstrably so on October 7th. And I think part of what we're seeing here is the horrific confluence of a war that is also enmeshed in a civilian population that is also has elements of occupation to it certainly in areas that Israel's already occupied, reoccupied with an enormous amount of international attention, and all together, that creates one aspect of what is truly a horrific reality right now.

Benjamin Wittes: So what happens now? We have an ongoing pressure from the Americans and elsewhere for there to be a ceasefire hostage deal, but no immediate sense that it is progressing or happening, and it would likely bring down the Israeli government if it did happen.

We have an ongoing operation that is increasingly divisive, at least its continuation is increasingly divisive, along left-right lines, or center-right lines, in the Israeli population. What should we expect over the next few months?

Natan Sachs: It's hard to say, of course. I think the base assumption we should make is that in the Gaza Strip --- but there's also a very important front in the north, in Israel and Lebanon, that we must get to in the context of what might happen --- in the Gaza Strip, we're seeing Hamas dramatically diminished, but still on its feet in some places. And most importantly in the places that have been cleared by Hamas, nothing has been put in their place. And therefore, you see the return of Hamas or Hamas-affiliated people but men with guns and the only men with guns are probably affiliated with Hamas or could be easily co-opted by Hamas.

So Hamas is still there. It's not remotely the power it was before October 7th. A lot of its tunnels, the huge infrastructure that Israel was also very surprised by, has been destroyed, but we don't know how much of it. There could be more that Israel doesn't know about. All that leads to probably an insurgency, a long-term insurgency, but probably low grade.

This is if there is no ceasefire deal, perhaps a low grade insurgency, perhaps higher grade. The most likely scenario would be an ongoing series of incursions, depending on intelligence, and attempts by Israel to degrade here, degrade there. Find Sinwar, of course, kill Sinwar himself. If hostages are not released, find hostages or their remains and rescue them, which is a very difficult thing to do, and no one should expect Israel will release the bulk of them this way.

In other words, a low grade continuation of what we see with spikes that could be not so low grade at all. If there is a deal at some point, and I wouldn't rule it out completely, then we could see a different reality. Hamas would be on its feet to a certain degree. And the question is, how much of a political process could there be going on the Palestinian side?

Could the Palestinian Authority get its act together? Would Arab states intervene to try and broker some kind of movement forward? Would there be a technocratic government put in place, for example? Some people have pointed to the idea that Hamas would probably like to have a Hezbollah position where it is the strongest power in its country, but not the one burdened with the technicalities of government.

And therefore, it also has a civilian facade like the Lebanese government, even though Hezbollah is not the Lebanese state by any means, but it is the most powerful force in the Lebanese state. That leads me to the point that the tensions in the north between Israel and Hezbollah are severe and they are, have been rising in the last few days, couple of weeks.

There have been fires, wildfires in northern Israel instigated by attacks by Hezbollah. And as the summer approaches, we'd expect more of that. The lesson that Israel learned on October 7th, among others, but the first one was that it cannot allow an organization like Hamas to rule the world a mere few hundred meters from Israeli homes with the intent of invading Israel and the capacity to invade Israel.

The thing is that Hezbollah has been claiming and actively preparing for exactly that for years before Hamas did. It dug tunnels that were uncovered and exposed, perhaps there were more that were not exposed, but there were those that were exposed dug in a very different terrain in the north, much more rocky and hilly, mountainous even, with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, stating very clearly the next war will be in the Galilee, in other words, in Israel or Palestine, as you would call it, and with clear plans to take an Israeli town or more than one.

That border is much longer than the border around Gaza and much harder to defend. That means that Israelis have learned and believe that they cannot live with Hezbollah deployed along the border, and moreover, that isn't true. That is counter to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war in 2006.

Benjamin Wittes: And which demanded that Hezbollah withdraw from the border region, which it then never did.

Natan Sachs:  Exactly. And so the Israeli demand is that Hezbollah adhere to that resolution, withdraw to the Litani river, which in most places would give it some buffer, especially from a short range missiles. The Americans, the French have been involved in negotiations.

If there is a ceasefire in Gaza, perhaps we see some kind of advancement there. I don't believe that they would really adhere to 1701, but perhaps there could be some quiet medium ground found to restore some very tense quiet. Or not. We could see a de facto ceasefire come into place and deterrence, very tense deterrence return.

But in the meantime, there are dozens of thousands of Israelis displaced from their homes, not only along the Gaza border, but also the north. And this is a major issue in a very small country like Israel. They are housed in hotels throughout Israel. They're very visible to every Israeli. It's a very, and there are a large number.

It's a very important political issue and one that will require some kind of resolution that also raises the stakes. And on this too, I'll just say that Gantz and Eisenkot were not always, but often voices of moderation. Very early on in October, there was expectation in Israel that Hezbollah would join the fight.

And so there were those in Israel who argued that Israel should strike first against Hezbollah. And according to many reports on October 11th, there was a concrete plan to do and President Biden but also probably Gantz and Eisenkot pressured against it and won the day. That is still on the cards.

And I think there, we can hope that it is averted. A war between Hezbollah and Israel would be devastating if it was full blown. It's already, there's already a war, but if it was full blown, it would be devastating for Israel. It would be absolutely devastating for Lebanon. Hezbollah is far stronger than Hamas, and therefore the Israeli response will be even stronger.

Hopefully that can be avoided.

Benjamin Wittes: We are going to leave it there on that cheerful note. Natan Sachs. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you, Ben.

The Lawfare Podcast is produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution. You can get ad free versions of this and other Lawfare podcasts by becoming a material supporter of Lawfare using our website, lawfaremedia.org support. You'll also get access to special events and other content available only to our supporters.

Have you rated and reviewed the Lawfare podcast? If not, please do so wherever you get your podcasts and look out for our other podcast offerings. This podcast is edited by Jen Patja and your audio engineer this episode was Noam Osband of Goat Rodeo. Our theme music is from Alibi Music. As always, thanks for listening.


Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.
Natan Sachs is a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His work focuses on Israeli foreign policy, domestic politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and U.S.-Israeli relations. He is currently writing a book on Israeli grand strategy and its domestic origins.
Jen Patja is the editor and producer of the Lawfare Podcast and Rational Security. She currently serves as the Co-Executive Director of Virginia Civics, a nonprofit organization that empowers the next generation of leaders in Virginia by promoting constitutional literacy, critical thinking, and civic engagement. She is the former Deputy Director of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier and has been a freelance editor for over 20 years.

Subscribe to Lawfare