Myth and Reality in Israel’s Hostage Negotiations

Israelis were exhilarated when two hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since Oct. 7 were rescued this month in a daring raid by the Israeli military. It wasn’t just the thrill of seeing the hostages alive in their families’ arms. The rescue reminded many of Israel’s stunning hostage rescue in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, when more than 100 hostages from an airplane hijacked by militant Palestinians and Germans were freed.

The Entebbe operation was quickly mythologized as proof that Israel could both save its citizens and reject terrorists’ demands. But the myth of invincibility Entebbe engendered was always flawed: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own brother was killed in the raid. And the most recent raid came with enormous cost — Gazan health officials said at least 67 Palestinians died in the effort to rescue the two Israelis.

Today, there is no such military option for liberating hostages on a large scale, and the negotiation effort to release Israeli hostages from Hamas’s grip is not at all exhilarating.

Israelis are demoralized by weeks of opaque attempts to reach an agreement with Hamas. Hopes have been continuously raised — talks are currently underway for a possible new deal — but progress has been halting. Neither the Israeli leadership nor Hamas has seemed to be in a rush, leaving families of hostages frantically crying “Now!” at the gates of Israel’s Defense Ministry compound, hoping the war cabinet hears them.

But which voices the ministry hears is unclear: Public demands are rife with contradictions. One recent poll showed that significantly more Israelis prioritize hostage release over toppling Hamas, while two others found that a majority of Israeli Jews reject the terms of a broad deal that include a cease-fire and the hostages’ freedom. By contrast, these polls show that a large majority of Arab Israelis favor hostage release deals.

Perhaps Israelis aren’t sure what to think, since Mr. Netanyahu has implicitly promised Israelis that they can have it all. He has insisted that the military campaign will help bring their loved ones home alive while also defeating Hamas. But the long months of war since the last hostage release come with a cost written in blood. The hostage situation is an eerie metaphor for long-entrenched beliefs that Israel can fulfill fundamentally irreconcilable aims, a mistake that has contributed to the war in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and bloodshed over decades.

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