The Good Fight
Anshel Pfeffer on Israel and the War in the Middle East

Anshel Pfeffer on Israel and the War in the Middle East

Yascha Mounk and Anshel Pfeffer discuss how the war is transforming Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.

Anshel Pfeffer is a British-Israeli journalist. He is a senior correspondent and columnist for Haaretz and the Israel correspondent for The Economist. Pfeffer is the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.

In this week's conversation, Yascha Mounk and Anshel Pfeffer discuss Israel's strategy for defeating Hamas and whether it is likely to succeed; why the global left has failed to grasp the horrors of 10/7; what implications the war has for Jewish life in Europe and America; and why, after the war, Israel urgently needs to resolve the internal tensions that have marked the country since its founding.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: We are now nearly four weeks into this conflict, four weeks since the worst terrorist attack on Jewish civilians since World War II. You've been in Israel throughout this period, you're in Jerusalem right now. How is this being processed by Israeli society? And how will it change Israeli society?

Anshel Pfeffer: I think the first thing that really people need to understand about what is happening now to Israeli society, is that there is a consensus on the fact that the country is at war, and it's not going to be a short war. The aim of the war, I think, agreed upon by almost all Israelis—there’s very little left, right, or center opposition to the basic objective—is to make sure that Hamas can never ever again pose a threat to Israel from across the border. For that to happen, Hamas’s military capabilities and its government in Gaza have to go. And because people tend to see Israel in these very binary ways (Netanyahu against the left, settlers against people who want two states) I think people haven't grasped what this has meant to almost all Israelis. When it comes to a long-term solution, I think many people are still stuck more or less where they were on the day before October 7. But in what has to happen in the next weeks and months, on the ground, there is a consensus in Israel. 

Anybody who's been to Israel in recent years knows that Israel has reached a level of prosperity— Israelis, by and large, have a good life, and many of them are very cosmopolitan and very connected to the world—and I don't think Western societies understand the concept of a society being prepared to go to war and to make sacrifices. Because even when various Western societies were at war in the post-World War Two era, these were wars happening far away: Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. And also the proportion of people who were actively involved in those wars—whether it was soldiers being sent to fight, or civilians who were somehow involved in the war effort—they were always in a minority. In Israel [after October 7], it's almost everybody. It's not just because so many reservists have been called (so many people have brothers, sons, sisters, parents etc. who are in uniform) but so many Israeli civilians are now also involved, whether it's those who are impacted by the October 7 attack, whether it's those who had to leave their homes because they live in areas now under threat both near the borders around Gaza to the south and on the northern border with Lebanon. There is almost a general feeling of mobilization. Almost all businesses are impacted, universities are influenced, schools etc. So the feeling in Israel is that Israelis are prepared now to make that sacrifice. Israelis know that for the next few months, the kind of life that they've been accustomed to in the last two decades or so will not be possible because the society will be at war. It will have an economic impact and it will have a personal impact. And wherever I go in Israel, Israelis have accepted that almost automatically. I think that's something that's very difficult for people in the West to grasp.

Mounk: One of the transformations that has been interesting to observe relates to the segments of Israeli society that have been very critical, not just of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, but of some of Israel's policies towards Palestine for a number of years—people who've been very skeptical of the settlement policies in the West Bank, and who’ve been critical in certain ways of Israel's treatment of Gaza as well. By my understanding, there is now a very broad consensus that Israel cannot coexist with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip. Take us inside the thinking of people on the Israeli left who have been critical of the government for a good number of years. How are they squaring those commitments with the horror that was perpetrated on October 7?

Pfeffer: One thing that you really have to realize about the Israeli left is that it doesn't exist. The Israeli left is a very tiny thing. When we talk about opposition to the government, we're talking mainly about centrists. And the Israeli center is quite big, if you go by the votes for the centrist parties in the last election, and certainly in the surveys right now. I mean, Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party is by no way a left-wing party, and neither is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. And the same goes for other opposition parties: there's Yisrael Beiteinu, which is basically a right-wing opposition party to Netanyahu. So, one of the things we have to stop doing is talking about the Israeli left, because with the exception of some very, very small organizations it doesn't really exist. It's much like in America where the Democratic Party is mostly a centrist party, I think. And what has defined the Israeli opposition—the  Israeli center—as very, very slightly leaning towards the left over the last few years is not the Israel/Palestine issue, which barely existed on the Israeli agenda. It's been much more about trying to preserve Israel’s democratic institutions, at least within Israel (not so much about what's happening in the West Bank, where Israel is not acting like a democracy), and also the opposition to Netanyahu personally, because Natanyahu has insisted on remaining prime minister. There was a short period in which he wasn't prime minister, but he tried to get back and he managed to get back, despite being indicted for serious corruption charges. So the whole way in which Israeli politics has been ordered in the last few years is nothing like the way it was ordered perhaps 10, 15, 20 years ago, when the main dividing issue between the political blocs was on the preferred solution, or even the need for a solution, to the Israel/Palestine conflict. 

Now that Israel's opposition is being confronted with this, it doesn't automatically mean they need to rethink their ideas on the Israel/Palestine conflict, because many of them weren't even thinking about it. And as we've seen in the last few weeks—the total shambles of the Netanyahu government in handling everything, the arguments in the war cabinet, the arguments between Netanyahu and his generals, or the way Netanyahu has been openly criticizing the generals (and his proxies have been doing even more of that in his name), and the way they failed on the civilian relief side of of this, which is should be a huge national effort, but it's being mainly managed now by volunteers and local authorities because the government is so terrible… From that perspective, everything that the Israeli center or center left has been saying for the last few years is now being proven by the way the government is so ineffectual.  As regards the positions held by the parts of the Israeli opposition who were in favor of a two state solution, of some kind of equitable way of creating a Palestinian state side by side with Israel—I don't think that's changed, either. Before October 7, everybody was convinced that a two-state solution wasn't around the corner, even if a new government came into being. The polls were against Netanyahu and there was a chance of having a new government, because the government did such a bad job in the first nine months of its term. Nobody really had a plan of “the moment there's a new government we’ll re-engage with the Palestinians and within six months we'll have a two state solution.” And let's remember that for 30 years before October 7, we've been on and off trying to solve this since the beginning of the Oslo Accords, and it hasn't really got there. 

So, what you’re talking about—the idea that they're rethinking—that hasn't even begun. Everybody's still very much in the here and now: a terrible attack on Israel took place on October 7, and Israel needs to first of all go after the perpetrators of that attack and ensure that they are never ever in a position to threaten Israel again. On the day after, that is when we're going to start once again arguing about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Assuming Israel succeeds in its war in Gaza, assuming Hamas is toppled, assuming that its military structure is dismantled… You can't obviously destroy Hamas, because Hamas is an idea, and it has its own broad support amongst the Palestinian people—but assuming those objectives of dismantling the military structure and toppling Hamas in Gaza are achieved, then Israel will be stuck with a situation that it never wanted to have: responsibility for two-plus million civilians living in Gaza. And also the question of how to make sure that Hamas doesn't come back, because even if you destroy Hamas, they can always come back again. What do you put in its place?

Mounk: But surely, in that sense, the two questions that you're treating as separate right now are linked. Which is to say, Hamas’s attack on October 7 was sadistic and gruesome, and I think any reasonable person must recognize that this gives Israel every right to respond, and that no democracy would tolerate living next door to the perpetrators of such a massacre. But strategically, the question of the goals in this particular war, and the achievement of some lasting security infrastructure that ensures Israel's safety in the long run, are interdependent. And so, what is the concrete goal of Israel's military action in Gaza right now? And how does that relate to a broader strategic plan for maintaining Israel's safety?

Pfeffer: That's the problem with the way Israel is being governed right now. You use the word “strategic”—but there is no strategic thinking. What Israel has had in the last 10 months since the return of Netanyahu is a prime minister who has only one strategy: political survival. And that has only intensified in the last few weeks with the public anger towards him over what has happened. He's not thinking strategically about anything but how to remain in power. His party, Likud, is basically his own personal platform. Most of the members have become more and more right wing, more and more extreme. They have this crazy anger against those people who dared to keep them out of power for 18 months during the previous Bennett government. And then you have the rest of the coalition, which are far-right parties and ultra-religious parties who are focused on their own agendas. And there is no possibility in this government for strategic thinking. That’s another thing people have to decide right now about Israel. Israel still has some excellent functioning parts of the army, even though it failed terribly to prevent what happened on October 7. And they understand that their battle plan now in Gaza, as you said, is connected to whatever Israel's desired strategic outcome is. But they're not being told. It's the job of the politicians to tell an army: “this is what we want.” It's not happening. And the army is right now being forced to try and work out for itself what Israel's best strategic outcome is, because it's not getting that from the politicians. Netanyahu cannot say publicly that he is in favor of the Palestinian authority retaking control of Gaza on the day after [the war], even though that is what most of the security establishment thinks is the best idea, because the far right in his coalition will go crazy if he says that, and that will jeopardize his hold on power.

Mounk: Is it that there is a strategic plan that can't be publicly formulated, and that strategic plan is to dismantle the war infrastructure that Hamas has built, to get rid of the Hamas leadership, and then let the Palestinian Authority take over? Or is it a fight about what the outcome of the interaction in Gaza should be? 

If it's the latter, what are the different options that are seriously being considered, whether that is within the military leadership or within the government?

Pfeffer: So there really is no discussion, or any serious discussion, on the political level, because it's impossible to bridge the pragmatic strategy—which is to try and create a situation where the Palestinian Authority can return—and the far right, who are very powerful in this government, who are openly dreaming of Israel remaining there forever and rebuilding the settlements that Israel dismantled back in 2005. And the gulf is so massive, and this is a government which can't survive without the far right, so that discussion simply isn't being had on the political level, which is where it needs to be had in a functioning democracy. So the army is assuming that at some point, there will be a handover to probably some kind of peacekeeping force, which will have to hand it over to the Palestinian Authority. But they're really in the dark as to what the politicians are going to tell them to do. And now that in the government we also have Benny Gantz’s party come back for the war cabinet and so on, the government is even more strung along this very wide range of possibilities. Some of them are totally crazy about rebuilding the settlements, and some of them are pragmatic, and there's no way that these views can be bridged as long as this is the government which is in power. And people think that Israel is a country of clever people, who know how to run things—but right now, the government, as far as any strategic thinking goes, is totally dysfunctional.

Mounk: If we assume for a moment relatively limited war aims—to ensure that Hamas no longer controls the Gaza Strip; that any future leadership can't use the infrastructure that Hamas has built up over the last 18 years to attack Israel; that presumably the tunnels underneath Israel's territory are no longer usable; that the huge arsenal of rockets that Hamas has built cannot be deployed… what would that take? How long will that take? What is the outlook if the government or military settle on that as the aim?

Pfeffer: Well, for now we're talking about a ground operation, obviously also with air components, that will take a number of months, perhaps as long as a year, because it's almost impossible to imagine the vastness of the tunnel network, of how Hamas has built its military structure into Gaza. Hamas has been in control of Gaza now for over 16 years. A huge amount of the resources that went into Gaza have been used to build tunnels and to accumulate arms and rockets. Obviously they've had help from Iran and Hezbollah with this, but a huge amount of aid money has also been siphoned off. Hamas have had a cut from every import into Gaza. And they're not going to just give it up easily. There are at least 30,000 Hamas fighters ready underground to fight and to protect that infrastructure. So, to go in and to go to place after place in the Gaza Strip, to town after town, to refugee camps and neighborhoods, to city after city, and to just destroy those capabilities… it's a matter of months. Now, Israel I think is capable of doing that, but only in a months-long campaign. And the army is not for one moment saying “well, we can do this in a couple of weeks.” They're very clear. This is a story of months, perhaps as much as a year. 

And I think Israel's ready for that. On that point, I think there is an agreement more or less between the government and the army. There was some argument over when to start the ground offensive: the army wanted to start earlier, there was also pressure from the families of the hostages, and from the Americans, and Netanyahu himself is somebody who always procrastinates on these kinds of decisions. So it took three weeks from the Hamas attack until the ground offensive began. It's been happening for a week now, and there are entire divisions already, I think, inside Gaza. There'll be a number of stages to this offensive. Now we're in the really intensive phase in which they've encircled Gaza City, and they're starting to work their way in. But assuming the military plans work, there'll be periods where once they've disrupted the command chain, and once they've managed to destroy some of the main headquarters, then some of the forces will come out, but they'll go in and out in raids to hit other parts of Hamas’s infrastructure—and also in the south, where the IDF is not operating on the ground right now. But once again, we always come back to this question: Okay, if you've done it, then what next? And this also influences how Israel should be doing it, because you'd want to already have some idea of who would be part of an international peacekeeping force to come in and take over parts of Gaza, and to start preparing for a transition to the Palestinian Authority. That's obviously only if Israel does go down that route, which is, sadly, far from being guaranteed with this government.

Mounk: I have every sympathy for people who worry about civilian casualties on the Palestinian side. There are numerous civilian casualties on the Palestinian side, and as I've emphasized throughout, any innocent civilian who's killed must be mourned to the same extent and in their own right. No amount of context and no amount of just war philosophy makes the loss of life any less tragic. 

What I find difficult to understand about this moment is how people are able to leave Hamas out of their moral equation to such a radical extent. Why are they asking Israelis for a ceasefire, but not demanding that Hamas liberate its hostages, including the children that it has taken? Why is there moral outrage at Israeli airstrikes (perhaps, in some cases, for unstandable reasons, where those airstrikes are insufficiently targeted), but nobody mentions the fact that Hamas keeps firing rockets at Israeli civilians throughout this conflict? Why is that not getting through in much of public opinion, and is there anything that Israel can do about that?

Pfeffer: I think it's very difficult for observers in the West—and certainly those people that you mentioned who have ignored or been blind to what Hamas has done, and the need to do to respond to that—to see this in anything but their own Western ideological frameworks, rather than understanding that this is not a conflict that fits into these neat definitions. This is a war which is being fought also as a war between religions—that cannot be ignored. And Israel is, in some ways, a victim of its success. Israel is seen as being part of the Western world, and Israelis are seen as white (which is ridiculous because most Israelis are from oriental or North African origin); there’s this kind of dichotomy whereby Israel is white, or settler-colonial, etc.—you've heard all that academic mumbo jumbo. And therefore Israel is automatically the oppressor. 

On October 7, and the two or three days after that, you could see an entire media class in the West not really sure how to deal with Israeli victims. I mean, there have been so many rounds of warfare in Gaza, and usually the pictures are of dead Palestinian babies. Suddenly, we’ve got pictures of dead Israeli babies. It just doesn't fit in the framework. This is something they couldn’t deal with. And then three or four days later, when the Israeli airstrikes were intensifying in Gaza, they had the pictures they were used to using, and they used them. And I think that, sadly, there are things that the world finds it difficult to conceive of. The type of cruelty with which Hamas terrorists came through the fence on October 7 and went from Kibbutz to Kibbutz; and inside the kibbutzim, from house to house, and shot entire families, literally marked Jewish communities down for extinction—it's something that parts of the world that are so well-meaning, well-intentioned and enlightened, can't conceive of. This is something that, from their perspective, happened in history—it happened in the Holocaust, it can't happen again. It certainly can’t happen when we're so used to seeing the Israelis as these stronger oppressors and the Palestinians as these victims lacking in agency. And that, I think, has led to a moral blindness. 

Now, obviously some people connect this to anti-Semitism. I think there is a connection, but I don't want to say that every person who has been afflicted by this moral blindness is anti-Semitic. But I think that people have a problem dealing with the idea that the Israelis are being targeted also because they're Jewish, and they're being targeted by somebody who, yes, maybe in terms of firepower is weaker than Israel—Israel has many times the firepower of Hamas—but the fact that this thing happened, and Israel cannot allow it to ever happen again, is something that they really can't grasp. They say “You're stronger. You're the oppressors. You're the colonialists. And okay, yeah, what Hamas did was wrong, but it doesn't really change the way we see things.” People don't really question their concepts too much.

Mounk: I've argued in the pages of Persuasion, and at this point in The Times of London, in The Spectator, and many other places, that this is connected to the ideology that I've written about in my last book, The Identity Trap. Because what we've seen over the last decades is the rise of a set of ideological categories on the left that allow us to fit people into neat identity categories, and then to decide how they should be treated completely turns on the supposed moral status of that identity group. You also have this idea that Israel fits into the framework of the “settler colony,” which is basically rooted in the history of the United States and Australia, even though Jews, of course, like Palestinians, trace their origins to this land; and even though nearly 50% of Jews are Mizrahi Jews who were expelled over the course of the last 60 or so years from Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Syria, and who literally had nowhere else to go. They did not choose to go and colonize Palestine, they found refuge in the only state in the world that would open its doors to them when they were in mortal danger. You can make the same sort of case against the morally atrocious idea that any form of violence against an oppressor is justified and, of course, point out that those who shout “Queers for Palestine” or “Reproductive rights will turn on the fight for Palestine” are simply trying to press a messy reality into a simplistic conceptual scheme in ways that will never work: you can blind yourself to the world, but you can never beat reality into submission sufficiently for that simplistic view to work.

But what you're making me think is that there's something else to all of this, and that part of it is simply an inability to reckon with the fact that the moral categories of some people in the world, like Islamist terror organizations, are radically different from ours. They insist on seeing the world through our conceptual terms, through the kind of moral sentiments that you're encouraged to have in a liberal democracy. And so they cannot recognize the nature of the threat from Hamas today, because they insist on seeing them as these modern political actors that are responding to understandable grievances (in keeping with the strategic objective of a two-state solution, or something like that) when clearly all of that is belied by the nature of the statements of what Hamas is and what Hamas wants. I do not mean to draw a parallel to the Nazis, which I think is unhelpful, but in that sense, it reminds me of George Orwell's lament, in the 1930s, that the intellectuals of his time kept underestimating Hitler because they simply could not understand that he thought in very, very different categories. 

Pfeffer: The framework that is totally lacking, I think, in the West, is the understanding of religious wars; and the idea that an ongoing conflict can be based on things which are not just this kind of dichotomy of the oppressor and white against people of color, and so on. There are other things beyond race that can be at the base of a conflict. It’s just something that they can't answer. 

Mounk: I know it's somewhat surprising to ask somebody who's currently in Jerusalem to speculate on this. But as a Jew who has roots in Britain and who knows Europe well, how do you think this is going to affect Jewish life outside of Israel over the coming decades?

Pfeffer: Jews in the diaspora, certainly in Europe, have always been, in the post Holocaust-era, treated I think by other Jews, by Israeli Jews and by American Jews, as like, slightly weird. “What are you still doing there? This is the continent that tried to get rid of you and you're still living there.” I'm British, so for me it's slightly easier because Britain was never conquered by the Nazis or ruled by the fascists. But I've always felt a very, very strong sense of pride as a European Jew. My grandparents after the war emigrated to Italy and lived there for six years and raised their family there, and for me, with all the problematic history in Italy—being the first fascist country—I can also see Italy as being a haven. And I've been to Germany and Austria and spent time with Jewish communities there. And I don't think they feel that they couldn't live there anymore because of what happened in the Holocaust. And there have been success stories of renewal of Jewish life, more recently in Eastern Europe. And even when there were murderous attacks against Jews, I don't think there was a feeling that we can't live here.

What I'm worried about now—and it's tragic, because it's happening in relation to Israel, and we're still only four weeks into this event and there’s a lot of feelings of shock and trauma, which will be processed over time—but I'm hearing a lot of people say “this is the worst.” But there hasn't actually been a physical attack on Jews, yet, in Europe. There’s been many nasty things said at demonstrations, there's been a lot of graffiti, there's certainly been a lot of terrible things on social media. But I think what has happened now is that there's a feeling, because of what we said before about the people who you would expect to be protective of Jewish communities disregarding the threat now—what they fail to understand is that part of the Jews’ security in Europe is bound up in the existence of Israel. We don't necessarily have to emigrate, but it's an insurance policy. And it's a sense of pride, even though the majority of diaspora Jews are very critical of the Netanyahu government, and a higher proportion of them are in favor of a two-state solution than ever. And now, they're being told that this is a terrible place: “They're committing a genocide,” and “you really shouldn't support this.” This is creating a sense of deep, deep insecurity for Jews, because they feel that they have to either disavow Israel, or basically be seen as supporting a genocide. And it's an impossible choice for them. And you asked me about Europe, but I think in some parts of America—certainly in some of the better educated and progressive parts of America—I think some Jews are beginning to feel the same as well.

Mounk: What are your hopes and fears, not for the next months, which certainly are going to be hard and brutal, but for what the next three, five or 10 years might bring for Israel?

Pfeffer: Everything that's happened since October 7 has been a pivotal moment in Israeli history. And it could go in different ways. We’ll see whether Israel will be able to first of all effectively carry out the military operations it has to carry out. And there is a similar issue happening on the northern border—the fact that Hezbollah are firing missiles but haven't yet invaded or tried to do what Hamas did can't change the fact that Hezbollah is basically the template on which Hamas was built. So there is now a necessity to try and change the security situation both in Gaza, and on Israel's border with Lebanon. So there's a period now in which it will be mainly a military issue. Obviously, if you live in a country at war, you want your country to prevail. But then there'll be the question “Where does Israel go from here?” This is the end of the Netanyahu era. And luckily we haven't spoken about him too much. But it's the end of an era because Netanyahu has been such a dominating figure, and everybody has been so invested in him, whether his supporters, or those who oppose him—everything's been about him. And he will be gone, whether it will take weeks, months or years. This is the end of his era. 

We could have been having this conversation a month ago, before October 7, and I would still say to you that Israel is at a point in its history where it needs to work out its biggest issues, it needs to work out its questions of religion and state. What kind of a democracy is it? What role does Judaism have? We have a growing Orthodox community—how are they integrated into society? How does Israel within its own population work out its relationship with the 20% of society who are non-Jews, many of whom identify as Palestinians? And how does Israel work things out with the Palestinians who are living on its borders in the West Bank, Gaza and so on? These are other issues that Israel hasn't dealt with for a number of years now, partly because we've been gripped by this really stupid (but sadly irresistible) political drama all around one man. This man has now failed. And what was happening in Gaza was partly his doctrine of allowing Hamas to be in control.

Now that this terrible, tragic, awful end of the Netanyahu era is upon us, this is when Israel has to ask these very difficult questions. Those are the key questions which will define Israel's future, but they can only seriously be dealt with when this war is over and when we've released ourselves of this terrible government. They'll still be far-right parties, there will still be Likud. But this angry coalition that they've built, I hope, will not be around after Netanyahu. I think Israel will be able to have a better conversation and confront these questions in the aftermath of this war. And I hope the answers will be the right ones. 

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.