Israeli President Isaac Herzog on the Israel-Hamas war and the future of the Middle East

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Isaac Herzog
President of the State of Israel


Mary Louise Kelly
Host of NPR’s All Things Considered

Opening Remarks

William F. Wechsler
Senior Director, Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs
Senior Director, N7 Initiative
Atlantic Council

WILLIAM WECHSLER: Hello, thank you all for joining us today. My name is William Weschler and I lead the Atlantic Council’s work on the Middle East and North Africa. I extend a warm welcome to each and every one of you who are watching today for this important edition of the Atlantic Council’s Front Page. Today we continue the Atlantic Council’s mission to shape the global future alongside our allies and partners. And our AC Front Page Series remains dedicated to spotlighting global leaders while seeking constructive solutions to shared challenges.

The unprecedented scale of Hamas’ terrorist attack on October 7, triggered a war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza which continues to this day, and shows little sign of ending anytime soon. We are honored to host a distinguished guest who can provide unparalleled insights into the events of October 7, its impact on Israel and the Israeli people, the status of the ensuing war and relations with the Biden administration, the plight of the hostages still being held by Hamas and the innocents caught in the conflict, and the future for Israel’s security, its relations with its Arab neighbors, and the prospects for a just future for the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.

Joining us today is Israeli President Isaac Hertzog. President Hertzog is the son of Israel’s sixth president, Chiam Herzog, and grandson of Israel’s first Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi Herzog. In 2003, President Herzog was elected member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, after serving as a government secretary to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Throughout his fifteen years in the Knesset, he has held several parliamentary and ministerial posts, among them minister of housing and construction, minister of tourism, minister of diaspora affairs, in charge of the fight against antisemitism, is a member of the Israel Security Cabinet, and he previously served as government coordinator for the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

In 2013, he was elected chairman of the Israeli Labor Party. And in 2021, he was sworn in as Israel’s eleventh president, following an overwhelming majority vote in the Knesset, which really constituted a historic landslide victory in what we all know to be very divided and divisive politics inside of Israel. Quite an impressive accomplishment. Of course, most of you who are watching this know this, but it bears repeating, that he is the head of state not the head of government in Israel—who, of course, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

We were also honored to have guide this conversation Mary Louise Kelly, cohost of “All Things Considered,” NPR’s flagship evening news magazine. Mary Louise previously spent a decade as a national security correspondent for NPR News, a focus she has maintained in her role as anchor, leading her to take “All Things Considered” to Russia, to North Korea, and beyond. She was actually in Israel just about a month ago. Mary Louise is also an accomplished author, and her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, the Washingtonian, the Atlantic, and many other publications. 

Throughout our discussion, you will see from time to time a banner at the bottom that will tell you how to pose questions to add your voice to this discussion. So, without further delay, let me ask Mary Louise to commence today’s discussion with our distinguished speaker, President Isaac Hertzog. Thank you.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Thank you. Well, thank you very much for the kind introduction. I want to say thanks to all of you at the Atlantic Council for convening us. And I want to welcome all of you joining us across time zones and around the world, across continents, for what is going to be an important and timely conversation.

With the war in the Middle East now into its third month, with 1,200 people dead in Israel as a result of the attack of October 7, with the death toll in Gaza are expected to surpass twenty-thousand people this week per the Gaza Health Ministry, and here in Washington, where I’m speaking from, with mounting questions over what the next steps should look like, including at what point President Biden may say enough—that US support for Israel is strong, is unwavering, but that there are limits.

So with that, it is my pleasure to welcome the president of the State of Israel, Mr. Isaac Herzog. He’s joining us live tonight from Israel. Welcome. Nice to see you.

ISAAC HERZOG: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. It’s a pleasure to be with you, and I also want to thank the Atlantic Council. I remember my live appearance in the headquarters of the Atlantic Council back in October 2021. Look how the world changed so much since then.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Indeed. Let’s dive right in with news of the last several days, including Israeli troops accidentally killing three Israeli hostages. I want to begin by saying I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for the families and for all Israelis who I know are grieving the news. Second of all, what happened?

ISAAC HERZOG: We are, indeed, grieving the news. It’s a terrible, terrible event. And very tragic, because we know the families. By now, most Israelis know the families personally. And of course, I, myself, visit and meet the families constantly. We should know that there are about 129 hostages still there in Gaza. But 121 were returned from various nationalities. But 129—including babies, children, women, and grown-ups, and old people are all there. And first and foremost, I must state outright that there are so many humanitarian cases that, you know, make it even more urgent to bring them back home.

But we are dealing with a murderous, I would say, psychopathic leader who’s holding them and he’s using—he’s training on our nerves. So part of it is the old way that, you know, the war is run where we are—we are managing the war in civilian terrain where you’re in people’s homes, people’s living rooms, et cetera. And in the last few weeks there were incidents including in the recent days whereby you would have either suicide terrorists, you would have terrorists calling you in as if they’re Israeli hostages and then it’s a trap. 

We had people and we had actually a regiment commander, battalion commander killed under such premises. So the soldiers, and I don’t justify in any way what they’ve done but I can understand that when you’re at war and the circumstances are that it’s, you know, you act by immediate seconds or sound bites or how you manage the war, when they saw some people walking out they misunderstood who they are and that’s a major—

MARY LOUISE KELLY: These three—if I may, sir, these three were shirtless. They were reported to be speaking Hebrew and they were carrying a white flag. Does this raise questions for you about rules of engagement, about how Israelis’ forces are conducting . . . in Gaza?

ISAAC HERZOG: It raises questions for anybody—it raises questions for anybody who is, you know, we’re all grieving as a nation and definitely it’s not only for me. The chief of staff spoke very beautifully afterwards. It is—clearly it needs to be inquired and studied. But everybody who’s come out from the battlefield knows that when you’re in battle your focus changes. Surroundings are—the experiences. There are repeated efforts to kill your soldiers and therefore, clearly, there was a major, major mistake here of a huge magnitude. It is the topic of the day in our nation. But we have to remember the operation. We are at war in a terrain which is the biggest terror infrastructure of modern times. It’s the whole city underneath, city of terror, funded for years and built underneath in a very, very sophisticated manner. Clearly, you see a lot of outside counsel from Iran and others on how to operate and therefore this is a tragedy that is extremely painful to all of us. In a split second we could have celebrated three heroes who managed to come back home. 

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And that’s why I want to follow up. You just described it as a tragedy, as a major mistake. My question is are you confident that the rules of engagement are sufficient? Are you confident that the way that Israeli forces are operating is such that this won’t happen again? 

ISAAC HERZOG: First of all, I trust the Israeli army. It’s all our sons and daughters are there. Two hundred and fifty thousand Israelis like you and me have all engaged groups all the way up to the age of ninety-five and left their homes and went to serve, and as such there are people that are brought up as soldiers to obey a humanitarian international humanitarian law to care for the life of the other, to obey strictly the rules of engagement. 

But I know never judge somebody and that’s a very famous Jewish saying, never judge somebody until you come to his place. That terrain is extremely dangerous. It’s all booby trapped. It’s all—they have RPGs all over the place. They have all sorts of equipment. It’s all a built huge concrete infrastructure underneath. People come out of it. It’s all—it’s all detonated. 

So you can judge. You can say it’s a huge tragedy and a major mistake, and guys, make sure to check yourself before you take such action again. And believe me, the soldiers and the commanders were all—I mean, they’re all put on the spot by this and the national mood and reaction. So I trust the army that they will do whatever they can that it will reoccur.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: How are you, Mr. President, prioritizing rescuing the remaining hostages still in Gaza versus what Israel has articulated as the chief goal of eliminating Hamas? 

ISAAC HERZOG: I think it goes parallel. I think part of the fact that we have gone in Gaza led to the fact that there are negotiations and there were negotiations and we brought back 121 hostages. Now we have to do another effort, and it ain’t easy because you are dealing, as I said, with somebody who’s not thinking in the same manner like you and me or the average person who—you know, who says, OK, let’s have—it’s all—it does the opposite. If you—the psychology is such that he’ll do whatever it takes to torture you, to make you suffer, to ache. And the nerve-racking game here—on the one hand families in a democracy, in a nation that cares for every single human being; and on the other hand, somebody who doesn’t really give a damn about his people in Gaza, and all he wants is his mission to be a big Salahuddin-type leader in history—that’s what we are dealing with.


ISAAC HERZOG: Right now I’ve said it today and I repeat: Israel is willing to enter another humanitarian pause and bring in additional humanitarian aid in order to bring back the hostages. So the entire responsibility for this issue lies with Sinwar and with his people.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: I want to pause there because this is news and, as you said, you have—you were—said this earlier today. You were meeting with ambassadors from eighty countries and said Israel is ready for another truce and exchange for hostages. Is that an official offer? Is it on the table? Where does it stand?

ISAAC HERZOG: What I say I don’t say out of my kind of I throw something without being—you know, I’m the head of state, so I’m responsible to what I say. Right now we know that there is Israeli—there is—there is an effort by brokers. I don’t know much more than that because I’m not involved in the details, but I do know that Prime Minister Netanyahu met with families of hostages just last—an hour ago and repeated the fact that he had already sent the head of Mossad, David Barnea, to Europe already twice in order to reignite the process.

But one has to understand the situation. We don’t intend to stop our attack on Hamas in order to undermine their military capabilities or their ability to rule Gaza. We intend to change the course of history. And if they refuse to go into any negotiations on prisoner—on hostage release and exchange, et cetera, we will continue as such with no limitations.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And I just want to make sure I understand—

ISAAC HERZOG: Yeah, and I did make it clear that Israel intends, I mean, and is willing to go into another humanitarian pause. And now the responsibility lies in the other side.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Is that also Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position? Is he onboard with this offer—

ISAAC HERZOG: I’m awed by the question, OK? If I say something, I don’t say it out of nowhere. So I guess, you know, if the president of Israel says something, I guess it’s quite responsible.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And so the current status is this offer is out there and you’re waiting for a response?

ISAAC HERZOG: I don’t want to go into details. Truly, I’m saying I’m not involved in the nitty gritty. All I’m saying, that in general there could be another window of opportunity. We have seen yesterday three old men, aging eighty to eighty-five, in a video clip that was sent out virally by Hamas. And they’ve said, of course, under gunpoint what they had to say in order—as part of the psychological warfare of Hamas on the Israeli public. And yet, because we are a resilient public and we understand what is being the effort to drive us nuts, we would simply say the following: We want to bring the hostages back. This is a basic humanitarian duty, and that’s what people of morality do, bring them back home. We will do whatever it takes through various means to bring them back home. And this is what we are trying—one of the main ways to do that is simply by having another process with Hamas.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And one more on this before we move on. Why now? Why this offer of another truce now? Why not earlier?

ISAAC HERZOG: Oh, we had many efforts all the time. But truly, Hamas didn’t want to, and it’s their problem because we are going into Khan Younis more and more. We just completed the total conquest of Shuja’iyya—Jabalia, sorry. And we will complete Shuja’iyya. And then we intend to take over the entire Gaza Strip and to change the course of history. And enabling Palestinians and the Israelis live in peace in the future, without a platform of Iran driving everybody down into the abyss of bloodshed and warfare. 

Let us all remember what happened here in 2005. Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally, uprooting our brothers and sisters who are living there for decades, telling our nation that it will be the new Hong Kong of the Middle East. And instead in a coup d’etat, one of the most brutal ones, Hamas took over as an Iranian-led platform. And since then, we had thousands of missiles on our head and recurring rounds of battle. So now this has to end. And in order to enable Israelis to go and live back in peace on our border.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Yeah. You will have seen last week where President Biden warned that Israel is losing support—international support—because of indiscriminate bombing, his words. Would you share where you were when you heard that, what went through your mind?

ISAAC HERZOG: First of all, I don’t think we are carrying out any indiscriminate bombing. All our activities are followed very closely by legal counsel. I think we are one of the armies which has more lawyers in each unit in proportion than any other army. We check all targets and we alert people in advance. We send millions of leaflets. We send millions of text messages. We call people. We give them hours to prepare. If there are sites that are questionable, we prefer not to carry out the attack. 

Unfortunately, in such a dense area, there could be and damages that are very tragic. We know it. But we do—according to international law, we alert people very cautiously. So there’s no indiscriminate bombing. And we take—we seek advice and exchange opinions and views with our partners. One thing is clear: The people of Gaza are not our enemy. The enemy is only Hamas. And we’re fighting Hamas and its partners.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: So I hear you saying that Israel is taking every precaution it can to alert people, to send out, you know, leaflets, to tell people where to go, to give people hours to prepare. How should we square that, sir, with last week one of the deadliest strikes was in a residential area in Rafah, southern Gaza, near the border crossing. This is where civilians have been told by Israel to go because they’ve been told you’ll be safe there. They’ve been told repeatedly. The United Nations says more than twenty people were killed in that strike I’m referring to. Why is Israel striking areas where it has told people, civilians, to go?

ISAAC HERZOG: So I don’t think the information of the United Nations is correct. People were told –

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Is not correct?

ISAAC HERZOG: Because people were told to go. Because the United Nations is built of various agencies. Some of them more biased. Some of them less. We will talk about the United Nations during this hour, believe me. There is a big—there’s now many questions regarding the United Nations. But there’s a major huge area called the Mawasi area, where it was defined as a safe zone for Palestinians to go to, according to the humanitarian corridors. And they are safe there completely—completely. And it can occupy hundreds of thousands of people. The United Nation refused to cooperate on turning that into a humanitarian zone. But we have made it into a humanitarian zone.

In Rafah, where the attack was, it’s called Philadelphi route. And in Philadelphi Route, there is the biggest amount of smuggling of armaments and weapons, including smuggling of Hamas operatives. We’ve alerted the place well, well in advance. Rafah is not excluded from the war, but we are not going there right now. And therefore, I think the information that you read from the United Nations is wrong.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And, again, which piece of it is wrong? Are you—or the number that twenty were killed, that they were at Rafah? 

ISAAC HERZOG: No, I don’t shy away from the fact that every Palestinian who was hurt—it aches and hurts me and it’s very painful for me, believe me. And I say it as the head of state of Israel, where our enemies come from there. But even in the last few days, missiles were fired from the safe zone area by Hamas on our families, on our homes, OK? Even in the safe zone. Even from UN zones they are firing missiles from the parameters of those zones. So we are trying—and we make a special effort not to hurt civilians as much as we can. And we are notifying them well in advance. And to mitigate any consequential damage because it hurts us and it’s the right thing to do.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Do you hear the questions, though, on people’s minds who are worried that Israel is being too callous about civilian casualties in Gaza?

ISAAC HERZOG: So with that, we are absolutely not—I reject that. I know. I know what the world is saying. I see the onslaught of campaign on TikTok and all other websites and digital platforms saying—and I say that information coming out of Gaza usually is incorrect, to say the least. It doesn’t—it does not say that there are now many, many tragedies. It’s a dire situation in Gaza. It’s extremely painful. And I am very much aware of it. But what else can we do? We tried any possible venue not to go to war. But on the 7th of October, the most brutal, treacherous, sadistic, and barbaric attack was launched on us. You know what? On our recognized international boundary since 1949.

And the most peace loving people in Israel, who are the biggest supporters of peace with Gaza and the Palestinians, were butchered and terrorized and shocked and burned. And families together burned and raped and abducted and whatnot. This is a tragedy that has befallen my people. And I go in and out and I see agony in every corner of my country. And in order to protect our citizens in front of an empire of evil which emanated in front of our eyes, which operates not only in Gaza. It operates in Lebanon and it blocks now the main trade route going to Europe through the Red Sea, which means a world affair. We have to go to war, unfortunately, and send our sons and daughters to fight there in order to get that mob out of the city and clean the place up so that we can all live in peace.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: President Hertzog, what does Israel intend to do with Gaza once your troops are fully in control on the ground there?

ISAAC HERZOG: There could be many alternatives. And it’s everybody’s discussion in fora like the Atlantic Council, and institutions, and the like. There are many ideas that are thrown in rooms, predominantly in very important rooms in Washington, in Israel, in the entire region, in Europe. And it’s being tested and checked. I think that was the main objective of the visit of the National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan over the weekend. 

I personally would differentiate between the military side and the civilian side. Why? Because I think we have to be reasonable about who exactly is going to send boots on the ground from outside to take over Gaza. It’s a complicated question. And so long as there is no answer to that, only Israel can make sure that terror will not emanate again and again and again from that area. So that’s a military question, which has to be taken into account until you have the full solution, OK? And the full solution will have to be discussed in a way that any force that comes in works in a forceful manner, doesn’t sit idly by like we see, you know, on the border with Lebanon, and enable them to do whatever they want, and stand up to them. So that’s one issue. 

And then there’s the civilian issue. Meaning, how do you reconstruct Gaza? How do you rebuild Gaza? How do you make it into a place that can be a place where people can dwell and live in a dignified manner, and have a future together with the Israelis? Let us remember, in the last two years before this treacherous attack Israel opened up its borders and brought in well over twenty-thousand employees a day to break bread and work in Israel. Turns out that many of them gathered information on Israeli employers, cities, towns, and villages that they all then went to attack. But the question is, how do you create a real economy and a real future in Gaza without hate? That is the real question.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And if the question is, who runs Gaza at the end of this? It sounds like the answer is, we’re working on it? It’s still an open question?

ISAAC HERZOG: I think there’s a lot of work being done. There’s teams working on it. Many ideas thrown to the table. It will have to be probably an amalgamation of forces working on it together and coming forward with a solution, including regional players. And I think it’s actually something that can create an optimistic vision for the future because we have to turn the direction of this region into a different direction. 

MARY LOUISE KELLY: We’ve been focused on Gaza, as has much of the world, but I do want to throw you a question or two about the deepening violence in the West Bank. When I was there last month reporting we visited a town called Deir Istiya and interviewed a Palestinian farmer named Ayoub Abuhejleh, who told us he was being blocked from his land, from his olive trees. And he tried to show us. And as we walked, my team and I were surveilled by a drone. And then about a dozen Israeli soldiers appeared and pointed their guns at us, and shouted at us, and separated the farmer from us, detained him, handcuffed him, blindfolded him, and questioned him for hours. Why is—why is the IDF doing this?

ISAAC HERZOG: So I would be very cautious in generalizing Israeli activities on the ground. But we have to understand what we went through as a nation. What we’ve gone through as a nation, and I think that is what is missing in the entire discussion about the day after, is a major, major national trauma. Israelis who believed in peace throughout their lives, Israelis who are neighbors with Palestinians, woke up one day and found the Palestinians—the same Palestinians that they were working with, or living with, or supporting—coming with knives and hatchets and guns and killing and burning and torturing them.

And this has impacted the entire situation on the meeting points between Israelis and Palestinians all throughout, until things calm down. And yet there is a major scar within the Israeli national psyche. Can anybody trust his or her neighbor? That is why there was such a major alert in the West Bank. I can tell you that, with respect to complaints about violence in the area, the Israeli authorities—the legal authorities have clamped down dramatically, including issuing a legal tool, which is not known in the United States, called administrative detention. Which means arrest without due process on certain Israelis in order to lower down the tension. But you should also be aware that there is a lot of tension because if a certain premise with Israelis, mostly women and children are there, and somebody gets close, people are getting on alert. And that is part of the tension that you’ve seen on the ground.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Yeah. I suppose the basic question here is just is Israel doing enough to stop Israeli settler violence in the West Bank?

ISAAC HERZOG: So there’s a major, major clamp down. And the trajectory has been a substantial reduction of events of that nature. But I also would be very careful on generalizing Israelis who live in the West Bank. There are about half a million of them. And 99 percent of them are not involved in any of this. And those who are involved are under investigation. I heard so many numbers. The fact of the matter is that the numbers are all different.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Yeah. In just a minute I’m going to open it and take some audience questions, because I know we have people weighing in who have things that they would like to ask you. But I would love to throw you one more bigger picture question. I read with interest the piece that you wrote recently, for The New York Times in which you said, and I will quote you, “We in Israel find ourselves at a tipping point for the Middle East and for the world, and at the center of what is nothing less than an existential struggle. This is not a battle between Jews and Muslims. And it is not just between Israel and Hamas.” Would you elaborate on that? Who is the struggle between? How do you see the stakes?

ISAAC HERZOG: So the struggle is between two civilizational set of values. One is the values that we all adhere to, meaning the free world, meaning the behavior within the family of nations, meaning the post-World War II order of nations. And that includes, of course, civil liberties, includes the democratic discourse mostly but not only, because there are countries who are with us and they are not democratic. And the opposing force is a force of evil which is—holds a jihadist culture, which believes in the total eradication of Jews, Christians, and moderate Muslims from the face of the Earth; which believes that we all have to be wiped out from this region. And if we are out, Europe is next and the United States, definitely. And I’m sometimes awed by the ostrich-like behavior of so many people who do not understand that Hamas is an epitomization of this concept and they—you know, and they support people who hang LGBTQ, who burn churches, who do not have any accommodation to any other belief or religion, and they’ve carried out these horrific gender-based violence atrocities on 7th of October.

And in fact, I’ll put a zoom on something else, a focus on something else: They are part of this empire which emanates from Tehran which has its proxies in Lebanon with Hezbollah, in Syria, in Iraq, on the border with Jordan now, and most importantly with the Houthis in Yemen. They are affecting the pockets and the cost of living of every family in the world because they are increasing the cost of living expenditure of every household in the world by the fact that they are blocking a major, major trade route, which is the Red Sea.

And that’s why I’m so pleased by the announcement of Secretary of Defense General Austin for the fact that he has announced a must, a coalition of nations to block these Houthi attacks. But I believe that sometimes, if it doesn’t work, there will be a need for power projection to the Houthis.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: OK. That seems like a good moment to open this up to some audience questions, and there are a bunch coming in. So let me—let me throw you the first one. This has to do with—well, I’ll just ask it directly: Have you gathered, Mr. President, additional intel explaining how such a grave incursion managed to occur on the 7th of October in such an undetected way?

ISAAC HERZOG: So, you know, we are a nation that has gone through major errors in the past, but we also have the ability to regenerate, to rejuvenate, and to have soul-searching and fact-searching all the way deep down. So this is basically what we are doing, apart from, of course, focusing on the battlefront. There are many, many discussions and many inquiries, and there will be a major national inquiry as well—that’s obvious—to find out exactly what happened. But a lot of stuff is coming out. And it is a lesson—a lesson to all of us to check our paradigms every so often.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Yeah. Do you have any early theories yourself?

ISAAC HERZOG: Sometimes we are so locked into our paradigms that we have to check them. We have to review them. It’s legitimate to check. I mean, you know, we are forward-looking people. We hope for peace. We are looking for the trajectory of the inclusion of Israel in the region. We believe that the engine of inclusion of Israel in the region is extremely strong. But, unfortunately, we were dormant to the fact that still there are enemies and there are people who think otherwise, and most what they think is simply barbaric and sadistic, nothing else.

There’s no justification—you can argue with me on anything. You can argue with me on settlements, on borders, anything you want, OK? You’re my neighbor, you can sit down with me and have any argument. This does not justify in any way something totally different, and that is this barbarism that we’ve seen on October 7.

When I spoke at the joint session of Congress on July 19 honoring Israel’s seventy-fifth anniversary, I said that the biggest problem is terror. The biggest adverse force to peace is terror, because we’ve gone through a lot of terror in the last two years and the world was sitting idly by. Hamas operated a huge amount of terror in the West Bank, in Jerusalem. I went to a bereaving family for the last two years, but nobody gave a damn until we got to this horrific moment.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And I have no desire to argue with you about any of this, but I do want to press you on this question of the intelligence failure of October 7. I hear you saying there are reviews. Obviously, it will take time. I know here in the US we are still learning the lessons of 9/11, for example, and what exactly happened, and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So I understand it’s early days, but it has been more than two months. Do you have any early theories/ideas/thoughts? 

ISAAC HERZOG: Well, it’s very clear what happened—

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Are you confident that nothing like this happen again?

ISAAC HERZOG: I would say what happened was very clear: We bought into the assumption that what Hamas wants is simply more money and to be able to manage the affairs of Gaza. We have seen an increase in the—in the standard of living where there was major international investments in Gaza in infrastructure. Things were going in the right direction. There was an eruption every now and then, and after a few days there was a ceasefire. And the assumption was that Hamas is deterred from any attacks—major attack on Israel.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Yes, sir. But the question is just why didn’t Israel see this coming.

ISAAC HERZOG: Because, I mean, they’ve gone through exercises time and again, same—exercising the same attack that we saw. We’ve saw—we’ve seen them exercise it, but the assumption was that it’s part of, you know, strengthening their morale and disturbing Israel, and they’ve diverted the attention of Israelis to the West Bank. Clearly, they were very sophisticated in the way they operated. But at the end, the decision-making process is done by two or three people that—they could have taken the decision within, you know, a few hours’ notice. And you are right about all the rest of it, and it will be discussed. There are many, many newsreels about it. When the alert came in, what was the assumption?

I remember that in high school—I studied in America—I did a schoolyear project on Pearl Harbor, OK? And I remember I read and I said: How could they not see it? How could they not see General Tojo and all the others? It happens. I mean, I’m not shying away. It’s a major failure and a major tragedy. But we will study it. And as a democratic nation which is very aggressive and vibrant in its public discourse, everything is already on the table and will be discussed much further.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: A question coming in, the tell me how this ends question. The specific question is: Do you believe there is any hope for a two-state solution? If so, what is the nature of a future Palestinian state that would be acceptable to Israel? And if not, what is the alternative?

ISAAC HERZOG: What I’m saying to everybody, guys, is it’s so premature to discuss the outcome because right now we are bereaving. We are in such a mental mood, national mental mood, that does not even think about the feasibility that there will be a border five minutes from where I’m sitting right now because nobody can trust anybody. Nobody believes that it’s feasible. I mean, the basic need in the mind of Israelis will be security and how do we guarantee security, because the root of the discussion will be: How could you give anybody the ability to create another Iranian-led platform, potentially, in the center of the country? And that will be the discussion. And I think part of it has to do with the revamping of the Palestinian political system and their ability to function in a different way than they have functioned so far.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: A question coming in from Ira Straus, who is a senior advisor, Scowcroft Center, at the Atlantic Council. Ira Straus wants to know: What can be done about the fact that the media placed pressure only on Israel, not on Hamas, to change its ways when Gazans die? I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the question, but I’ll let you answer it.

ISAAC HERZOG: Oh, the general notion, if you look at the social networks and digital platforms, you see a huge amount of hate against Israel from people who did not delve into the basic facts and the root causes of these conflicts. And this conflict has a root cause to it, because Israel tried any possible way to get to peace. If this was not a platform for Iranian terror, then the place would be, clearly, a great place. Gaza could be one of the more beautiful beaches and shores, and there could be wonderful developments there. But they have opted something else. They took the billions of dollars of money that they have from various sources, including taxpayers’ money in the West, and deposited it in bunkers and tunnels and terror bases and missiles in people’s homes. Now, with all due respect, I don’t believe that in your home or anybody else’s home there are missiles that fire to a hundred kilometers. But that’s what they have there. And that’s why I’m saying this has to change.

Now, I’ll give you another example. You know, everybody was blaming Israel for the lack of humanitarian aid for Gaza. I’ll give you some facts, OK? So in order to enable the humanitarian aid to go to Gaza, we have to screen the aid going in food trucks. Israel has multiplied manyfold its ability to scan and screen the trucks through the Nitzana crossing, and today we can bring three hundred, even four hundred trucks a day into Gaza. That means tens of thousands of humanitarian—of tons of humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, for the last two weeks when this is available only one-third—only one hundred trucks a day—come in through the United Nations’ efforts with its partners. And there’s a question: Why is it happening? Has nothing to do with Israel. But within the premises and responsibility of the United Nations, they could have tripled the aid to Gaza. They could have brought many more medication. They could resolve their differences with their local partners and got it in. But the blame is put on Israel, and the media, we know it’s put on Israel. So please, dear media, go and check how come tens of thousands of humanitarian aid and trucks do not go into Gaza every day.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Thank you. I will note for the record that the United Nations, as you know, has pushed back against that claim. They say that the challenge for them is that Israeli bombing has made it impossible to safely—

ISAAC HERZOG: Has nothing to do with the bombing, nothing. We have humanitarian routes. It’s got to do with the relations—their relations with the Egyptians and other partners and their supply –

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And I will also note just for the record—

ISAAC HERZOG: —and their supply chain.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: —thank you—for the record that the US argues that the challenge is that Israel has not reopened the Kerem Shalom crossing.

ISAAC HERZOG: We have opened Kerem Shalom in the last few days and there is a major effort going through Kerem Shalom. And we’ve done it although it’s a risky area. And we are protecting people there who are risking their lives in order to enable. We’ve also—you know, we are supplying water to Gaza, although the infrastructure was totally Palestinian but they blew it up with their missiles. We’re doing a lot of stuff.

And I checked myself. I went and even checked the boxes of the aid, open it up to see the quality. It’s basic quality, but I think international community, which likes to complain, this is their chance now, seriously, to upgrade the quality of the products that come in through the United Nations.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Well, it sounds like one area where there is agreement, as everyone would like for aid to be able to reach people who desperately need it.

ISAAC HERZOG: Absolutely. We are utterly delighted to do it, although—although—we don’t get one piece of information about our hostages, although every average Israeli is asking himself how come we are doing this when Hamas is not enabling any humanitarian aid to our hostages.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: We have a few questions coming in that might allow us to broaden this a little beyond the Middle East, so let me throw one of these to you. This comes from Pastor Sam Honnold from Mexico, a listener at WRMI Radio Miami International. The pastor wants to know: Guatemala and Honduras were the second and third nations to move their embassies to Jerusalem. The Israeli flag is often seen flying in the Americas. What support is Israel gaining in this time of conflict from Latin America? And how do you hope that to increase?

ISAAC HERZOG: There are numerous Latin American countries and entities and, of course, communities and churches that support us. Yesterday I hosted the president of the parliament of Paraguay, who told me that they, of course, intend to move their embassy to Jerusalem. And so there are other nations. And today, when I met many of the ambassadors who are resident in Israel, there was an overwhelming support by many nations, way above what the image is projected in the media. So, of course, it’s—nothing is perfect. Many were against us. But all in all, there is and we have many supporters around the world.

Incidentally, speaking of Latin America, a large group of the hostages have, of course, dual nationalities, citizenship, and are from Latin America. There are people who made Aliyah, emigrated to Israel out of Zionist beliefs, and lived in—there were, as I said, the biggest peace-loving communities. So I hope Latin American public will be as active as possible in their demand for their release.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you’re prompting me to think back, circle back to the point I raised that President Biden made. He believes that Israel is losing support internationally. And that is borne out by polls. When you see the giant pro-Palestinian protests happening around the world, what goes through your mind?

ISAAC HERZOG: First of all, I want to express my utter gratitude to President Biden, who is an incredible friend who shows constantly moral clarity under complicated circumstances, whose visit here was a source of comfort and strength, who we have an open, intimate, and honest dialogue with on a variety of issues. And who is showing immense leadership in world affairs. And his administration is working with us very closely. 

And we realize and understand that the image battle is very complicated. We understand that. You think we wanted this war? The last thing we wanted was this war. We are not warmongers. And the clear fact is that’s why border was empty from soldiers. We were—we were assuming it’s a peaceful border. So I would therefore say that we have many more friends that will so not—we’re not feeling or seeing them because they are friends, and they are, in many places, a silent majority.

But we are also aware of the image issue and, of course, the PR battle going on. The images coming out of Gaza, we don’t shy away from it. But at the end, we have to take decisions to defend our people. That’s what we’re doing. We have no other choice. Leaving it as it is means victory for Iran and its proxies. And the regaining of—and the return of terror and bloodshed, and more rounds of bloodshed. If you want to change the course in the Middle East, you’ve got to go into a different direction.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Yeah. Another question. Do you think Israel will be able to sustain its military operations without US support?

ISAAC HERZOG: I don’t get the question. I mean, he is asking—

MARY LOUISE KELLY: I mean, I the US is not threatening to withdraw support—

ISAAC HERZOG: Yeah, but the US is not—I must say, honestly, the dialogue with the US is not as superficial as one thinks. Our dialogue with the US is a strategic dialogue of partners. We exchange views. We talk to each other. America knows that we have the full right to defend ourselves, even obligation. They say it outright when speaking about the operational issues as well. They are—the highest officials of the United States come and meet with our War Cabinet. It’s not a relationship that people give orders to each other. We all understand the complexity of the situation.

But at the end, we’re fighting an evil ISIS-like empire of evil, which believes in jihadism, and believing in chopping people’s heads, and burning and raping. Guys, we can’t shy away from it. It’s either us or them. It’s a very clear issue.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Yeah. I mean, it is true that the US has sent all of its top people—Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Lloyd Austin now—with the same message to deliver, the same message, that they would like fewer civilian casualties, switch to surgical ground attacks, let more aid in.

ISAAC HERZOG: And I said to you that we have an open and frank discussions, and we listen to our partners in a very careful manner. And we seek their advice. And we disseminate it in the ways that are as good for Israel as possible.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: While we’re on the subject of allies and alliances and the importance of wider relationships, I was—along with Israel, I was in Jordan last month. And I was surprised by the depth of anger at both of our countries that I heard there, but anger against Israel, anger against the United States, and support not just for Palestinians but specifically for Hamas. How do you see Israel navigating its future relations with its neighbors? How do you get back to trying to normalize relations and to cooperation?

ISAAC HERZOG: I fully believe in the trajectory of normalization and inclusion. And if you go back a little bit, like two months ago, President Biden presented an incredible vision at the G20 summit, where the vision was connectivity between Israel all the way down to India in various fields—in transportation, in telecommunication, in energy, and so forth. It’s a grand vision and it’s a correct vision for the future of the region and the world. That means, of course, connectivity between Europe and the South China Sea. That means, of course, connectivity between the United States to Australia so a different route not only the Pacific.

These are big visions. And clearly President Biden himself in his Thanksgiving speech from his vacation site said that somebody, some evil empire, tried to undermine this vision by this horrendous attack. As I said, it’s not only a war between Israel and Hamas. You quoted my article. It’s clearly a much bigger picture. We have to understand that. And that is why we have to make sure that the main trajectory of peace between Israel and its neighbors, and the inclusion of Israel in the region, and normalization will go back on track. 

I was happy to attend the climate summit COP28 in Dubai just two weeks ago, to be received by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the president of the Emirates, and to meet so many Arab leaders there as well and discuss with many of them. And I hope that we will be able to go back on track and change the course of history. I’ve said it a few times in this.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: We have a lot more questions. We’re not going to get to them all. I am going to exercise moderator prerogative and ask one last one. Which is, we’re speaking at the end of what has been a challenging and deeply painful year for so many. And I wonder, as you see out 2023, President Hertzog, how hopeful are you that when the Atlantic Council invites us back to pick up this conversation at this time, next year we will be in a better place, that both Israelis and Palestinians will be somewhat closer to a durable peace and security than we are today?

ISAAC HERZOG: So I’ll say the following. I’m an optimist by nature, but there are moments that you’re challenged. And, sorry, this is a very historic moment, an extremely painful moment. The amount of agony, the cup filled with tears and poison, is unbelievable. Nothing that I ever imagined that will happen in my term. And yet, it’s here. And it’s our duty to do the right thing and also lead the way to a different path. It requires all region—leaders in the region, and it requires to uproot evil. So in this sense, I’m optimistic. Meaning that we will prevail and we will be able to lead to a different course in the region. How long it will take, how much pain we will endure, I cannot say. We will try to—of course, to do our best. And the quicker the better.

But at the end, you know, some challenges in history took them time, unfortunately. And we’ve—and in 2023—we’ve seen in 2022 the Ukraine—the Russia-Ukraine war. We’ve seen its impact throughout the globe. We’re seeing this conflict impacting the globe. The world is not stable. The world has many conflicts. It’s also part of a bigger picture. And I sincerely hope that the leadership of the United States, which is so vital and which is so impressive, will sustain and will continue. Because the United States is the real power that can lead to a quieter world, a more peaceful one. And let’s hope and pray that 2024 will bring with it a better future for Israelis, for Palestinians, for the region, and the world.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here’s to that. Well, President Hertzog, I thank you for your time. I wish you well. Thank you for taking our questions.

ISAAC HERZOG: Thank you. Thanks.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: And I want to thank Will and the whole team at the Atlantic Council for hosting us. Thank you to all of you who have joined us from across the United States, across Israel, the Middle East, and around the world. Thank you for your time. Thank you for sending your questions. We wish you all the happiest of holidays. Here’s to progress and to peace in 2024.

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Related Experts: William F. Wechsler

Image: Interview between the French President, Emmanuel Macron and the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog. Residence of the President of Israel, Beit HaNassi. Jerusalem, Israel. October 24, 2024 . Photo by Nicolas Messyasz/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM