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As cracks in the wartime coalition widen, Gideon Saar urges Israel’s warring politicians to hold their fire

Photo: Flash90

He may not be a member of the war cabinet, but New Hope Chair Gideon Saar is undoubtedly a key factor in the stability of Israel’s emergency government. If not for him, National Unity’s Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot may never have stood up to opposition leader Yair Lapid and the left’s pressure to hinge entering the wartime unity government on ousting right-wing ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.
And as the cracks in the wartime coalition have widened, Saar’s influence has been no less decisive in holding it together. His announcement that he intends to remain in the government as long as the fighting continues, and as long as the Israeli government is taking the necessary steps to eradicate Hamas, has forced Gantz to think twice about resigning. From the lofty height of 40 predicted seats in the polls, Gantz counted actual votes in the current Knesset and realized that even if he resigns, Gideon Saar’s New Hope, which controls a third of National Unity’s 12 seats, would remain in the government.
This is the petty politics that Saar prefers not to elaborate on. He rarely offers personal criticisms, insisting we focus on substance in the course of our extensive interview. He has reservations about the management of the war, including the humanitarian aid falling into Hamas’s lap, but he also has a vision of his own — from the victory over Hamas, the challenge posed by Hezbollah, the American administration’s pressure for a Palestinian state, to the issue of “the day after.” And at the end of our wide-ranging interview, we couldn’t help but ask about the political day after, too.


Give us a snapshot of the current security situation from your point of view. Where are we headed? What are the objectives? The public is confused.

The security cabinet made decisions about the goals of the war at the outset: dismantling Hamas’s military and governmental capabilities, removing the threat and returning the hostages, and all that stands. The goals that were set are ambitious, but they are achievable goals that require perseverance, determination, and willpower. This will affect Israel’s standing in the region and the world for many years to come, so we can’t backtrack.

And do you see the government sticking to the goals until they’re achieved? What’s the ultimate “victory picture”?

The victory picture is the unequivocal defeat of Hamas. One idea I’ve raised is allowing Hamas’s military wing to lay down its arms and leave the Gaza Strip in exchange for releasing the hostages. I think this proposal would help in the battle for global public opinion, even if it’s not very likely to materialize. In any case, there’s no alternative to Hamas’s defeat, and any result other than Hamas’s destruction means that this was just “another round” [in an ongoing conflict] — that Hamas will rebuild its capabilities, both as a governmental entity and as a military force, and eventually reemerge as a threat to Israeli citizens and repeat October 7. That’s their stated intent, this is not subject to question. So there’s no substitute for absolute victory — whatever the cost, we must bear it for the survival of the Jewish People.

What about the perception that we’re begging them for a deal and that by responding at all, they’re doing us a favor? Is it even possible to reach a favorable agreement under these circumstances? Because right now, it seems that the world sees us as pushovers.

I don’t think anyone perceives us as pushovers. So far, we’ve been criticized for using too much force, not too little. But it’s true that we have to change the dynamic and increase the pressure on Hamas, and not just militarily. The equation regarding humanitarian aid has to change. We can’t accept a reality in which Hamas seizes the humanitarian aid. Even if they distribute part of it to the civilian population, this undercuts one of the goals of the war, which is to destroy Hamas as a governmental entity. So this is something that has to be changed without delay.

But it seems that when it comes to this, Netanyahu is determined to let the situation continue, maybe due to American pressure.

I’m not sure, and I want to make a distinction between the principle of allowing in humanitarian aid and the question of who distributes it. When Biden pressured us to let in humanitarian aid at the beginning of the operation, on October 18, he himself made it clear that if he saw Hamas taking over the humanitarian aid, he would be the first to demand an end to it. That went into his statement as a result of a discussion between us and Secretary of State Blinken during the latter’s visit to Israel in mid-October.

So we have a promise, and we have to make sure it’s fulfilled and find another way to implement the aid transfers on the ground. The defense establishment is working on it and aims to present a plan in the coming days.

It must be understood that this is an inseparable part of the campaign against Hamas. This is not only a military campaign to eliminate terrorists and seize weapons, but to destroy Hamas’s status as the de facto government of the Gaza Strip. This is no less important, because anyone who talks about the “day after” must understand that as long as Hamas has this power, there is no day after, and no one in the Gaza Strip will dare to raise his head against them.

According to this view, the vacuum emerging in the northern Gaza Strip is also a mistake on Israel’s part. We see Hamas returning, arresting looters, carrying out government functions. Do you think a different approach is necessary?

As I said, a more aggressive campaign must be waged to damage Hamas’s governing capabilities in every area. In terms of finances, law enforcement, and distributing humanitarian aid — we have to break Hamas’s hold on the civilian population of Gaza. This hasn’t been adequately prioritized, and we have to focus on this in addition to the purely military operation.

Let’s talk about the military operation. We’re not big experts on that, but anyone can see that Hamas’s leadership is still alive, inside and outside the Gaza Strip. Looking from the outside, it seems that Israel hasn’t made substantial efforts in this regard. Most of Hamas’s leadership is sending messages, putting out videos, the ones in Qatar living like sheikhs while the ones in Gaza are underground but still functioning. Where’s Israel’s vaunted intelligence service?

I don’t entirely agree with your characterization. The only conclusion that can be drawn from what you said is that they were more prepared for the war.

And that’s what’s so shocking.

True. And this has to be admitted, because first of all, we know that we were taken by surprise, and we’re discovering much more extensive and fortified underground infrastructure than we expected, and it will take time to neutralize.

By the way, from the outset, the army estimated that it would need time. And the IDF is doing the job — wherever the IDF goes aboveground, it comprehensively defeats Hamas’s forces and takes control of the area. The thing is, you have a whole underground tunnel system, which is much more complex and will require more time — and as I said, you have to take into account that Hamas was very well prepared for this war.

After all, I’m not talking about the offensive tunnels. This is Hamas’s system of defensive or operational tunnels, crisscrossing all of Gaza, which Hamas has been preparing for a long time, for precisely this contingency — they had no other purpose. And so you have to understand this. Today, and throughout this entire campaign, we’ve been paying a price for the mistakes of the past, but we have no choice. We must have the perseverance and determination to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.


Year of War
You talk about patience and perseverance, and we hear about 2024 being a “year of war.” Will the Israeli home front and the reserve forces hold out for so long? Will Israel hold out for a war that could spill over into 2025?

First of all, the assessment that 2024 will be a year of war comes from the IDF. I have no doubt that Israeli society will endure, our soldiers certainly. There’s an acute recognition in Israeli society that this is a war of no choice, and that we have to persevere until victory. I hear this in all my visits around the country, including in conversations with bereaved families. Of course, there will be international pressure aimed at bringing an end to the fighting, and we’ll have to withstand that.

But look at where we are. We’re now talking about some kind of deal to secure the hostages’ release in exchange for a de facto end to the war. It seems that the nation is torn regarding the price we can afford to pay to bring the hostages home. Are you in favor of a deal that would end or dramatically downscale the war?

There’s a big difference there. A truce is not the same as ending the war. We saw that in the November lull, after which the IDF returned to fighting with full force in the Gaza Strip.

We’re talking about a much longer truce this time.

But it doesn’t matter in principle. As you’re aware, the IDF is using far fewer troops in the Gaza Strip than in November, and the character of the operation has changed. But if we’re determined to resume the war after the pause, even if it’s longer than the November pause, then we’ll resume the war in full force. I still insist that we have a moral obligation to bring back our citizens who were effectively abandoned on October 7. Saving Jews is also one of the goals of the war, alongside killing terrorists, and if we have an option to do that, we want to and should utilize it.


Israel First
Let’s talk about the day after. President Biden and British foreign secretary David Cameron are putting forward a plan for a renewed peace process, while it seems that Israel hasn’t put forward any alternative plan other than saying no to a Palestinian state. Where do we stand on this, in your view?

After several discussions, the cabinet is close to a decision on the matter. But I think that the principles are already quite clear, because we’re determined to preserve our freedom of action in Gaza on the day after, just as it exists in Judea and Samaria, at least post–Operation Defensive Shield. When we have to enter Nablus, Jenin, or Tulkarm to arrest or kill terrorists, we can do it. The same will apply in Gaza, because there’s no other entity that can do that for us.

And in terms of civil control?

From a civilian perspective, we have no desire to control the lives of the Palestinians or run their health and welfare systems. There will have to be a local entity that isn’t Hamas, and isn’t tainted with terrorism or supporting terrorism. In this sense, our principles are clear: As soon as such an entity arises, the Gaza Strip can be rehabilitated. Their priority is rehabilitation, our priority is demilitarization.

So as far as the reality we envision in Gaza the day after, our position is quite clear. We still need to make a formal decision, and I assume that will come sooner rather than later.

The question is whether we can stand up to the Americans on this issue, and whether Netanyahu is capable of leading this dialogue versus the administration in your view. Because there’s a lot of criticism of Netanyahu’s conduct vis-à-vis President Biden and the US administration.

I don’t want to get into personalities or approach the matter from that point of view, with regard to either the prime minister of Israel or the president of the United States. I think we have to stand up for our principles. If we oppose a Palestinian state, of course we have to stand by our position.

Even at the cost of losing the Saudi deal?

Yes. Because we have to be very clear about what a Palestinian state means. A Palestinian state means that we wouldn’t have the security control I just talked about in either Gaza or Judea and Samaria — no state can have freedom of action within the territory of another sovereign state, there’s simply no such thing.

Are we ready for this? Are we willing to sign away our security? Are we willing to return to the situation on October 7, not only in Gaza, but in Judea and Samaria as well? After all, it’s clear to everyone, including the Palestinians, that a Palestinian state would not end the conflict but serve as a stepping stone for continued aggression against the State of Israel with an aim to its destruction.

They haven’t relinquished this goal — if anything, Hamas has gained popularity since October 7. Then there’s also the paradox of giving the Palestinians a state in reward for October 7. Did America offer al-Qaeda a state after 9/11?

You’re very clear on this issue. But others seem tempted to go along with the Saudi normalization/Palestinian peace process proposal coming from the US. You may be alone in your determination to oppose a Palestinian state both on principle and for practical reasons.

I think a majority of the public opposes a Palestinian state, so this can never be done over the public’s head, because there’s a huge majority of the public today that understands that it will be a disaster for Israe’s security and Israel’s future.

And don’t think that the Saudis want this deal only for the sake of a Palestinian state. By the way, I’m also interested in normalization with Saudi Arabia, and I have to make the point that Saudi Arabia is interested in this move primarily for the sake of a defensive alliance with the United States.

So you think that if we stand our ground, we can reach an agreement with the Saudis, even without committing to a Palestinian state?

I believe that Saudi Arabia’s interest in a defensive alliance with the US is the key factor in their overtures for a deal, and that can’t happen without Israel. So the only way is to stand up for our interests. Ultimately, if we stand up for our interests, we will achieve our goals. We cannot accept a Palestinian state.


North Wind
Turning north, we’re constantly told by IDF officers, defense officials, and politicians alike that Hezbollah is invincible, that we can’t withstand their missile barrages, that it’s a sort of cancerous growth that we have to learn to live with. What’s behind this narrative of Hezbollah’s invincibility, and is there any basis for it?

There’s no such thing as an invincible enemy. And I’m sure no IDF officers say anything of the kind. I certainly haven’t heard that, and I don’t believe it. Israel has made a practical decision to focus on the southern front. There’s a principle of war known as “concentration of force.” When there’s a specific goal to be achieved, you don’t dilute your efforts across several different fronts. We currently face multiple fronts. There’s the terrorism in Judea and Samaria, the Houthis, Shiite militias from Iraq and Syria, and we also have attacks on the northern front, albeit limited in scope, by Hezbollah.

We talked about the objectives of the war in the south. What about the north?

This is precisely what I mean by concentration of force. At the moment, the decision is to concentrate our efforts on the southern front in order to achieve our objectives there. We’ll ultimately have to remove the northern threat as well. We must create a new reality in the north, on both sides of the border. On our side, in both the Gaza Envelope and the north, much greater forces will be stationed in the yishuvim and outposts than prior to the war, to prevent another October 7 scenario.

But on the other side of the border, on the Lebanese side, Hezbollah must be forced back over the Litani River, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701. We have seen the Radwan force pull back somewhat from the border due to the IDF’s fire over the past few months. But of course, this could change in a heartbeat if no permanent changes are made. That’s why some kind of arrangement must be reached.

An arrangement involving turning a blind eye and refraining from using military force.

No. Ultimately, the arrangement will be based on military force. The only question is whether it will be necessary to employ full military force — i.e., all-out war — or whether a more limited use of force will suffice. But it is clear to me, and I believe to the entire cabinet, that the threat must be removed, because otherwise northern residents won’t be able to return to their communities.

But even if you manage to keep Hezbollah away from the border, their precision missile capabilities will remain the same. Can the State of Israel continue to live with this threat?

I’ve been very open about my positions on Hezbollah and Hamas over the years. I advocated a preemptive strike against Hezbollah years ago, when Hezbollah was fighting for Assad’s regime in Syria alongside Iran and Russia. We had a golden opportunity to do to Hezbollah then what Hezbollah is doing to us now, namely give them a two-front war.

Unfortunately, we’ve missed many opportunities to deal with both Hamas and Hezbollah. I expressed the same position during Operation Protective Edge almost a decade ago. I completely disagreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s approach, and I demanded a long-term solution to the conflict.

You expressed that when we spoke to you at the time.

My position was clear that we had to go all the way and topple Hamas then, when its capabilities were much smaller. You mention that I said that to you at the time, and the record will show what I said on countless occasions in 2014 and for years afterwards.

So the enemy’s buildup has been ongoing for many years in both north and south, and now we have to solve this, but there’s a sweet spot between doing nothing and going all out on all fronts simultaneously. My view at the moment is that we should take our focus off the northern front for now — I don’t think you can go to war on multiple fronts at the same time and achieve a decisive victory on each. A state needs to exercise discretion to decide when to do what and on what scale.

But the situation on October 8, when every resident of Metula could see Hezbollah operatives openly making provocations on the fence, is something we can’t go back to. And there’s no question, returning to the reality envisioned by Resolution 1701 would be a much better situation.


Shalom Bayis
It couldn’t have been easy for you to join the government despite your complicated history with Netanyahu. But unlike your friends in National Unity, who are making noises about jumping ship at the first opportunity, you’re signaling an intent to stay on. Is it possible that your worldview is somewhat different from that of your fellow party members?

I can only speak for myself, not for anyone else. In wartime, the only things I see are the Jewish People and the State of Israel. I thought and I still think that forming the emergency government made us stronger by unifying us and giving the government the legitimacy to make tough decisions, because every decision now is a matter of life and death. Before we joined, the government lacked broad public trust, especially after October 7, and it would have been very difficult in my view to fight a war at the head of the previous coalition of 64 seats. So in terms of unity and national morale, this had and continues to have weight.

The second thing I considered is the massive international pressure that would be brought to bear on us, as we’ve seen in past operations, and a united front at home helps us withstand that pressure as well. So my point of view was that of national interest. By noon on October 7, I’d already communicated to Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot that we would have to go for an emergency government, as hard as that might be for us.

Some on the left and even National Unity claim that Netanyahu is mixing politics with war…

I do sometimes have criticisms of statements or actions of the prime minister — and of some others, by the way. But I don’t think the media is the right place for resolving this at this time. We’re in a time of emergency, and we have to calibrate our actions accordingly, and I do my best to be an example of this myself.

Often when I see something I disagree with, I don’t jump to react. On the contrary, I can make my point as quietly as possible, but I try to avoid as much possible creating the impression of divisions, because these days, we have to think about what will benefit the state, and I try to do that. Even when I strongly disagree with someone, I try to address the issue rather than the person.

Do you think 2024 will be an election year?

You’re the political commentators, that’s your job to predict. One thing I’ve learned from politics is not to pretend to be a prophet. I can only say in principle, should early elections be held? I think so, I think that after the war the people should be able to have their say.

But should elections be held now? The answer is no. In my view, we should be focusing on the war. That’s half a year — if you include coalition talks — of putting everything on hold and focusing on politics, and, in the natural order of things, putting the country through a very divisive period. So I think that right now elections are premature, but in principle, after the war, I’ll be calling for a snap election.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 999)

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