Crown Center for Middle East Studies

After the Israel-Hamas War: Israeli Perspectives

A Conversation with Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch and Shai Feldman

Organized and edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh, Assistant Director for Research, and Naghmeh Sohrabi, Director for Research and the Charles (Corky) Goodman Professor of Middle East History

November 4, 2023

In this two-part Crown Conversation, we asked two Israeli and two Palestinian experts about likely scenarios and outcomes in light of the October 7, 2023 attacks on Israel by Hamas and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip. These conversations were conducted on October 23 and October 30, 2023 and as such may not reflect the latest developments. But read together, they present a nuanced and complex picture of the long-, medium-, and short-term factors that will shape the current war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and possibilities and limitations for peace.

From your perspective, what are the desired outcomes of the current war for the Israeli government and also the Israeli public?

Shai Feldman: The ideal outcome comprises three elements. First, achieving the objectives defined by the Israeli government for which there is now a national consensus, namely eradicating the fighting capacity and the governing capacity of Hamas. The second is that somehow, miraculously, the 242 hostages who have been taken hostage by Hamas would come out of this alive. Number three, and this is the diciest, is that there would be some configuration of forces at first temporarily and then permanently that would take over Gaza.

If Israel succeeds in the first objective, it will own a completely fractured and to some extent also anarchic realm, following Kenneth Waltz's definition of anarchy which is that no one's going to have a monopoly of force. So in immediate terms, Israel would inherit this and then the question is what happens next. My preferred scenario is that for a specified interim period some consortium of Arab countries that have already established some sort of peace with Israel—Egypt, Jordan, the Abraham Accords countries, and probably Saudi Arabia—would jointly rule Gaza for a specified period during which the Palestinian Authority would be significantly strengthened so that it can eventually resume its control over Gaza.

We have to remember that the Oslo Accords gave Gaza to the Palestinian Authority. This was the first territory Israel evacuated in the framework of the implementation agreements of the Oslo Accords. Hamas took it over violently in 2007. The PA was too weak to resist, partly because of faulty Israeli policies. Israel has to completely change its approach to the PA so that we can essentially go back to the Oslo Accords.

Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch: I basically agree with Shai, but I would reframe the question. The Israeli government is controversial at the moment, and I'm not sure if what is ideal for the Israeli government is the same as what is ideal for the Israeli public. I would frame it as: What is the ideal within the interests of Israeli society? And by Israeli society, I mean both the 80% of the population which is Jewish and the 20% which are Palestinian citizens of Israel that are caught in the middle. Then, I think Shai's answers are correct, but I would change the order. Number one is the return of the hostages, and I hope this is not beyond a miracle. Many observers have negated the goal of releasing the hostages with the second goal, which is to eradicate Hamas or eliminate the military capabilities of Hamas. So we're in a Catch-22. We need a very creative way for these two goals to coexist in the short term but if needed also maybe in the long term. As for number three, in the long term it's not just, as Shai said, a configuration of forces that will govern Gaza but a configuration of forces that will lead to a political solution for the conflict in Israel/Palestine. For me, that's the same thing. We also need to remember that there is a lot of criticism about the Oslo Accords. A return to Oslo is not necessarily the only path. There needs to be a diplomatic political solution coming through negotiations, but I'm not sure if the end game is a two-state solution or another creative solution that allows for Israeli and Palestinian nationhood to coexist in this very small territory. Because we're focusing on the interests of Israeli society, I would add a fourth goal, which is the restoration of Israeli society's faith in its political domestic institutions as well as in its military.

Feldman: I completely agree with Michal that my answer was not about what's optimal for the Israeli government but how she rephrased the question. When it comes to talking about the future, the current configuration of the Israeli government can't accept my vision of where things should go from here because this particular government is comprised of parties that saw Oslo as a disaster. In addition, what is or is not acceptable to the current Israeli government is completely irrelevant because it's not going to survive. Of course, in the short term, they're the only government that Israel has, and President Biden is working very closely with them. But in the long term, this government belongs to yesterday. It might take 4, 6, 8 months or maybe a year or two years, but this government is finished because its entire approach collapsed. What happened on October 7 has completely eroded all the assumptions that guided not just this government but all Israeli governments since the second Palestinian Intifada. So, my answer is really not about what's good for the Israeli government but what I think is good for Israelis.

Given these circumstances, who amongst possible Israeli leaders today would be able to make the difficult moves to initiate the changes you've outlined?

Ben-Josef Hirsch: When we come to judge political leaders or potential political leaders, we can only build on their past actions. From the current names today—whether it's Benny Gantz who joined the cabinet or Yair Lapid who is outside the cabinet—none of them has in the past fully embraced the political-diplomatic path in a way that we can think now that would lead to change. I don't see anyone who is going to be a force leading to political negotiations in the spirit of Oslo or any other potential endgame. Having said that, because things are in such a flux, change can happen. Yitzhak Shamir didn't like the idea of the Madrid peace process, but Israel joined it because there was a regional and global opening for coming together. It was the end of the Cold War and the First Gulf War in Iraq. So, leaders can be convinced, coerced, and encouraged to join a political-diplomatic path even if their past behavior doesn't incline them to.

Feldman: I agree. In the short term, Israel managed to get to Madrid because domestic, regional, and global configurations allowed James Baker to force Shamir to Madrid. But here is where the circumstances were very different from those we face now. Shamir was finished at that point because of two things. First, the first Palestinian Intifada, which clarified to Israelis the cost of holding an occupied population without any political horizon. Second, the changes that the PLO had undergone, culminating in the 1988 Declaration of Independence that talked about two states living side-by-side. This is the starkest difference between then and what we have now because there has been no change whatsoever in Hamas’s position. Hamas has not gone through the journey that the PLO has traveled since 1974 (the Palestinian Provisional Program) to 1988 to Oslo.

Secondly, I would say that in past situations that Israel has faced, especially after 1973, somebody would emerge who is not tainted by the previous consensus. Why did Rabin emerge in the aftermath of '73? Because he wasn't around, because he was away. He was an ambassador in Washington, DC and not tainted by the immediate catastrophe of the surprise. Looking for somebody like that today, one can point to a former general by the name of Yair Golan, who is considered to be, a real leftist, what I call a militaristic dove. If you go back and see what this general has said over the last 5 or 7 years, he's like what the British call "spot on." He was correct in every assessment that he’s made. But this is pure speculation. Who might be that figure today? I don't know.

On the other hand, I do think that there was a change already brewing in Israeli politics before October 7. The change is the reawakening of the Israeli center as a result of the protest movement. The leadership of the protest movement was composed of people who were not previously involved in politics. These guys were dentists and CPAs, but one of the things that they gradually understood is that at the end of the day the most important decisions are taken in the political realm and that people like them don't have the luxury of saying "politics is dirty so we stay out of politics." These people have already started to roll up their sleeves and actually be involved in politics and go into the streets. This was the first phase of the protest movement. In the second phase, a very large chunk of the protest movement reinvented itself immediately after October 7 and became the most effective first responders in the South. The core of the protestors were Israeli reservists who had long experience in the military. They know how to move things from place to place, and they were the first ones to enter the killing fields because the government was not there. Now, we'll have to go through a third phase that is going to be the core of a reinvention of Israeli politics. How? It's too early to tell, but the center has woken up, and it's not going home anytime soon. All those who weren't called up for military service went to the South. Until October 7, the 15,000 volunteers in the South were the core of the protest movement, and they're going to comprise the core of whatever happens next.

Ben-Josef Hirsch: I agree with the return of the so-called center, but I'm not sure I would attach a lot of optimism to it. If we look at the democratic protest movement against the Bibi government and his right-wing coalition, the leaders of this movement were very careful to build the broadest centrist consensus within Israeli Jewish society. Therefore, there was very little mention of the costs of the ongoing occupation to Israeli democracy with the exception of the so-called anti-occupation bloc corner in Tel Aviv. This is one of the main shortcomings of these democratic demonstrations because they ignored the elephant in the room. This is also related to the very minimal participation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in those demonstrations. I'm not sure that this center is able or willing to constitute a real change.

Political scientists have this term "critical junctures," which basically refers to a situation in which there is rapid change with lots of uncertainty and then the decisions of important actors become meaningful and create causal changes that alter political institutions, like the state. I'm not sure the events of October 7 and those that followed constitute a critical juncture because Israeli democracy was already fragile and facing real risks. The demonstrations largely focused on this one year of judicial reform and Bibi's non-democratic, authoritarian traits. That's fine. But the processes that undermine Israeli democracy run much deeper and were in place before his right-wing government. If we look at legislative decisions, for example, the override initiative started in 2014. The Nation State Law in 2018. The limitations on civil society organizations go back over a decade. We really have an erosion of institutions that without being addressed make it hard to see change.

The other thing is the erosion of democratic values in Israeli society. Almost every survey over the last decade has indicated that Israelis believe less in democratic values and trust less in the institutions of democracy. The majority of the Israeli Jewish population have a very narrow understanding of what democracy is and we can see that now in the "rally around the flag" discourse in Israel. Democracies tend to mute some of their elements in wars, and Israel is no different. But those elements within Israeli society form along very specific lines, like the silencing of Palestinian citizens of Israel and other restrictions on the freedom of expression and by taking legal actions against those who don't condemn Hamas or do not condemn them properly, whatever that might mean. Therefore, as of now, I'm not seeing a real momentum for a positive change because of the events of October 7 and the war. Having said that, because there's so much uncertainty, I'm also willing to take a less skeptical path and say, there may be surprises like Yair Golan. He is an ex-general, which may not be the favorite choice of true liberals but, on the other hand, he has consistently presented positions that support a political-diplomatic solutions to the conflict in Israel/Palestine.

Feldman: I don't disagree with Michal. You won't see this in the coming weeks, but people are going to start asking where did the October 7 attacks come from? There are already cracks among the government ministers that the policy of de facto strengthening Hamas was a big mistake. They've gone so far as to say the Qatari money going to Hamas was a mistake. The Israeli policy of allowing Hamas to rule Gaza came at the expense of the weakening of the PA, and the weakening of the PA was designed to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. Those who were opposed to a two-state solution had a case to make that Israel doesn't have a partner. And they pursued policies that made sure that the PA wouldn't be a partner. The real reckoning will be about the very idea of destroying the two-state vision because beefing up Hamas and and weakening the PA was part of a long and broad strategic vision that has basically failed.

I draw the analogy to the 1973 story because then the reckoning had a first phase and a second phase. The first phase was to get rid of the guys who were responsible for the military surprise and the intelligence surprise, much like what we experienced on October 7: a military and intelligence surprise. The second phase is the political leaders. The general public was not content with the answer that all the fault lies with the military and intelligence leaders. The military and intelligence serve the politicians. And Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir found themselves out of office. Then the third phase emerged, which said, well, wait a minute. Golda Meir and the political leadership had pursued a certain policy, and the policy was that after 1967 Israel deserves something called defensible borders. The rejection of peace offers in 1971 or 1972 was part of a vision that said Israel cannot accept going back to the '67 lines. So the third phase of the reckoning was that vision and policy had to be thrown out the window. The result was that in the framework of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel agreed to withdraw from every square inch of Egyptian territory—something its previous leadership rejected since 1967.

Ben-Josef Hirsch: I believe Shai did a concise explanation of how despite Israel's deep-rooted insecurities, the conditions in 1973 drove Israel to enter negotiations and aim for a political solution. The October 7 Hamas attack has resurfaced those insecurities, even though Israel is in a very different place then it was in '73 security-wise, which leads me to suggest the need for a different kind of reckoning today. As someone who studies discourse and narrative, I see this war revealing the need for the kind of reckoning that focuses on the mutually exclusive narrative which frames the conflict. We see in this war both sides are calling each other's actions genocidal and politically use the term genocide. In my opinion, both sides misunderstand the other's points of reference. The images of pogrom in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust generates and evokes inter-generational trauma in the Israeli population. At the same time, there is the inter-generational trauma of the Nakba for the Palestinians. For the Palestinians, calls from the IDF to move to southern Gaza are not perceived as calls to be removed from a fighting area, but are perceived as ethnic cleansing. And for the Israelis, Hamas's horrific attack evokes feelings of a return to those unprotected communities in Eastern Europe and what had been done to them.

We need to have this reckoning. I'm not saying it will happen. But it's within our interests for there to be a reckoning about this mutually exclusive victimhood which frames this whole conflict and in which both parties are trying to hold on to the "Holy Grail" of victimhood. You can see it actually much more in the media in the United States: Who is the ultimate victim of this war? Is it the Palestinians under fire from the IDF who are victims of indiscriminate collateral damage? Or, is it the Israelis as victims of Hamas's crimes? In order for any other reckoning to be successful, we will have to address the parties' historical narratives.

Feldman: I agree with Michal. But—and this is the difficulty of my optimism—the situation we're dealing with right now is very different from '73 or the post-Intifada reckoning that brought about Oslo. The difference is that now we're really talking about two sets of competing narratives. One is the gap between the competing narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. That's difficult enough to deal with and Michal is correct in depicting the kind of change that would be required.

But parallel to that, there is also the issue of Israel versus Hamas, or you could call it the Israeli government and Hamas. This second gap is intruding on the ability to deal with the first gap. And it's not just an issue of narratives. The fact of the matter is that there were facts, political facts, that allowed the reconciliation with the Palestinians that are embodied in Oslo because the primary force at that time were the secular nationalists among the Palestinians, Fatah. Fatah was the strongest force in the PLO. Fatah went through a transformation realizing at some point that Israel is here to stay and that therefore what they have to do is create a situation in which Israel becomes as small as possible and allows Palestinians to meet their national requirements. We would not have had the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, if 9 years earlier, Egypt did not change its approach from what Abdel Monem Said Aly calls "a strategy of unlimited aims to one of limited aims." The strategy of limited aims resulted from the fact that Sadat reached a conclusion that Egypt has to learn to live side-by-side with Israel.

This is the discussion that people used to have in Israel in the years before Oslo. What if the PLO comes around to recognize Israel's right to exist? The conservative answer was always, well, in that case, they would no longer be the PLO. That's what happened, but it still was the PLO. The PLO went through the process, which was a prerequisite for allowing Oslo. It would be really stupid for me to say: I see around the corner the possibility of reaching the same kind of process that we experienced with Egypt in ‘73 or with the PLO somewhere between 1988 and Oslo in 1993 because Hamas hasn't gone through these phases. That's the big problem that Israel has now.

Ben-Josef Hirsch: I want to add something, but I want to be very careful because whenever you talk about Hamas there is a sensitivity of drawing false equivalence. I'm not drawing an equivalence in the actions of a terrorist organization and anything else. If Hamas's extremist position is the annihilation of Israel, we can't ignore that there are elements in the Israeli government that embrace the position of the non-existence of a Palestinian state and nationhood no matter what it would be. Some actually hold positions which call for the active removal of Palestinians. I'm not talking now about actions. I'm just talking about extremist positions which negate the national aspirations of the other side. Hamas's aspirations and those of some in the Israeli right—some of which are in government—actually have a lot in common.

Feldman: I agree. But these elements on the Israeli side, they're yesterday's news—even if it takes 4 months or 6 months for them to leave office. Because the reckoning has to do with the fundamental paradigm these guys that you're talking about in the Israeli government have epitomized. This stupid, crazy paradigm. We have to remember that until a year ago these guys were considered to be so extreme that no Israeli right-wing government incorporated them. So we have to go back to first principles, just like we have to go back to Oslo. We have to go back to the Israelis and Palestinians and not the Israeli government and Hamas. Israelis have to remember and go back to the first principles, just like how between '67 and '73 people thought it was inconceivable that having had the experiences of '56 and '67 and so on that Israel would accept the idea of going back to every square inch in the Israeli-Egyptian border, but they did.

The Abraham Accords and related efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Arab countries have been portrayed as a way to improve regional security and eventually resolve the stalled Palestinian peace process. From Israel's perspective, how do recent events affect that strategy in the short and long term?

Ben-Josef Hirsch: There is a convergence of interest between Israel, the actors in the Abraham Accords, and even the PA when it comes to fighting Hamas. Even though it's not politically what Palestinian leaders will say, as our colleague Khalil Shikaki said in our event, in a recent survey, a majority of Palestinians in Gaza did not support Hamas on the eve of the October 7. But the war has a lot of potential to undermine those joint interests. And this is why I'm hesitant to make predictions in the short term. What is the red line of how many Palestinian casualties occur in Gaza for Arab countries to change their positions? What would be a tripwire? How long would the war have to last? But yes, there's a lot of overlap of interests that in the long term could potentially lead to this regional approach to solving the conflict in Israel/Palestine. But I'm also being very cautious. I should be more optimistic like Shai. Maybe, I'm just living the wrong life. But there's so much that can be derailed by the war. For example, in the West Bank, the settlers are doing whatever they can now to evoke more violence. All those are tripwires—little and big—that can raise regional tensions in the short term.

Feldman: Shimon Peres had this great sentence where he said that pessimists and optimists meet the same death, but they live their life differently. I agree with everything. It depends a lot on what kind of horrific pictures we're going to see in the coming weeks and months. Many of these governments that comprise the core peace states—Egypt, Jordan, the Abraham Accords countries, and even Saudi Arabia—had given up on the Palestinians. There is a Palestinian fatigue that has to do with how the Palestinians conducted themselves during the same period that the Israeli government has made, in my own view, terrible mistakes in the Israeli-Palestinian realm. Especially after the 2007 takeover of Gaza by Hamas, every Arab effort to engineer an internal Palestinian reconciliation has failed. All these countries have made some efforts at internal Palestinian reconciliation—the Saudis with the Mecca agreement that lasted about 2 days, the Qataris, and others.

I think there are two kinds of trajectories possible. One is to remain optimistic about the fundamental, geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations that led to the peace, the Abraham Accords, and the serious discussions about normalization. Something that people didn't pay attention to, but to my mind was extremely meaningful, was the agreement that Israel negotiated with the government of Lebanon on the demarcation of the economic borders between the two countries that allowed Lebanon and Israel to exploit their natural gas fields. Where the hell did this come from? Lebanon doesn't move an inch without Hezbollah's consent. It came from geoeconomics. It came from some recognition by Hezbollah that their country is going down the drain economically and that they can't exist without an added source of income. Hezbollah behaved pragmatically, guided by geoeconomic interest, and reached an agreement with Israel. These considerations are still there. Nothing's changed.

Now, just imagine that something happens in the next few days, and we don't know how and why but God forbid the 242 hostages are slaughtered somewhere in some cell or place in Gaza City. You really think that anybody in Israel would be able to conduct a rational conversation? As if the pictures of October 7 are not horrific enough. This is where it's problematic to have these kinds of conversations and make predictions.

Ben-Josef Hirsch: As I said, the tripwires that can derail are plentiful. I think it is said somewhere that prophecies are given to the fools. So, I want to caution that we can't be prophets. To get back to the Abraham Accords, one thing that is clear is that just the regional approach is not going to work. We have to return back to the Israeli and Palestinian element of the conflict. Just focusing on the region—Lebanon, Saudi, the Abraham Accords countries—is not going to work. So that's the big change and significant realization for the long term.

Feldman: I completely agree with Michal. The idea of a regional accommodation as a substitute is out the door. We already have peace with Egypt and Jordan, we have four additional countries to join with the Abraham Accords, and we were on the verge of normalization with Saudi Arabia. Then, on October 7 we had the bloodiest eruption since 1948. So what does that tell you? Unless you're completely blind, it tells you that the regional option is not a substitute for the Israeli-Palestinian one. But it can be leveraged to help resolve the bilateral conflict. But not as a substitute, of course, not as a substitute.


For more resources, please see the Crown Center analyses which delve into the roots and evolution of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.