Judith Miller joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss Israeli domestic polarization, the Gaza hostage crisis, and the future of Israel’s war with Hamas.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Judith Miller, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal. Judy has written about the Middle East, terrorism, and U.S. foreign policy and national security for decades. A former New York Times reporter and bureau chief in Cairo, she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism. Judy’s the author of several books, including God Has Ninety-Nine Names, which explores the spread of Islamic extremism in Middle Eastern countries. Her work has appeared in many outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Tablet and The New York Daily News, and she is a former Fox News contributor. Today we’re going to discuss the Israel-Hamas war, which of course we’ve been covering closely at City Journal. So Judy, thanks very much for joining us.

Judith Miller: Thank you, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Politically, Israel has become deeply polarized in recent years. In the months leading up to the October 7 Hamas attack, Israelis had taken to the streets by the thousands to protest prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul the judicial system. A poll released this summer found that two-thirds of Israelis feared their country was headed towards civil war. Many blame Israel’s political divisions for distracting Netanyahu and his government from its mission of protecting the country. So I wonder, what’s your view as a longtime observer of Israel, about this position that Israel’s political divisions have affected its ability to respond to the attacks, or at least to prevent them from occurring?

Judith Miller: Well, Brian, I think that you’ve pretty much summed up the way most Israelis are feeling right now. I think they feel really betrayed by, disappointed in their government. It is astonishing and it will remain, to me at least, perplexing and horrifying that there were no soldiers to protect all of those people in the kibbutzim and the moshavs along the Gaza border. And that it took hours and hours to mobilize Israeli Air Force. And all of these questions are being asked by Israelis. There’s something else that I don’t think Americans understand. When someone in Israel is kidnapped or killed, they have always been immediately, quickly visited by someone from the government who tells them how the event happened, what to expect. Because everyone knows someone in that position in the country, that’s a very important human thing. That too did not happen on October 7. And so, Israelis are not only furious about the lack of intelligence, the lack of security, the lack of preparedness, they’re also angry and mystified by the lack of that human component and element, the reassuring hand on the shoulder at this difficult time for so many families.

Brian Anderson: Yet at the same time, the country is unified suddenly by this attack, as is understandable.

Judith Miller: A temporary unity of necessity, and not entirely. For example, Yair Lapid, who is a major Opposition Leader, refused to join the emergency coalition government because he said he would not join until two of the more radical-extremist, right-wing members were expelled from the cabinet. Bibi Netanyahu would not do that, and therefore he has refused to join.

Brian Anderson: Do you think there was a technological complacency here with the Iron Dome and Iron Wall, just people feeling that they were protected by technology?

Judith Miller: I think that’s part of the problem. We won’t know until Israel conducts its own investigation. But basically over-reliance on technology is a huge problem for many militaries, not just Israels. But yes, I mean there were no soldiers at the border. And one thing that has been reported in the Israeli press by military analysts is that supposedly Benjamin Netanyahu moved a brigade that was normally stationed in Gaza to the West Bank because Smotrich, one of the more inflammatory ministers, was going to do something deemed to be provocative, and the Israelis were very worried about the reaction of Palestinians on the West Bank to that, and therefore soldiers were actually moved away from Gaza to the West Bank at this moment of intense vulnerability.

Brian Anderson: The country has outlined a three-phase plan to strike back and eliminate Hamas, beginning with a ground defensive in Gaza, which hasn’t really started yet, then transitioning to lower-intensity fighting aimed at eliminating Hamas resistance, and then culminating in the “removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip and the establishment of a new security reality for Israel.” That’s in the words of the government. As the Israeli army prepares to invade Gaza, and again, that has not happened yet, another threat is looming on its northern border with Lebanon. Since the Hamas terror attacks, the Iran-backed group Hezbollah has been firing missiles, rockets at military targets in northern Israel, yet Hezbollah’s leaders have not indicated for sure whether the group is going to join the fight against Israel. So what’s your read on that? Why is Hezbollah hesitating, if it is indeed hesitating? And how would its entry change the dynamic of the Israel–Hamas conflict?

Judith Miller: Well, the Americans are clearly worried about that scenario, which is why the Biden administration moved two aircraft carriers, and that’s a lot of firepower, and soldiers into the area. Because precisely if this conflict escalates, we might be in a position of having to not only hit Hezbollah ourselves, but rescue dual citizens, American Israelis or American Lebanese. And he’s warned, as clearly as he can, that wonderful word, “If you’re thinking about joining this conflict, don’t.” But I have to say this, this decision will not be made in Beirut by Hezbollah. This is a decision to escalate to join the fray. That decision will be made in Tehran.

And my own sense of having worked both in Tehran and in Lebanon is that the Iranians do not want to, “Waste,” 130,000 rockets and missiles to protect the Palestinians. The sad truth is nobody in the region really cares about the Palestinians. I think Iran would want to save that capability for what they perceive to be a danger to Iran, and that is a potential Israeli nuclear strike against their own nuclear facilities. Now, that’s what worries the Iranians. However, if this conflict escalates, and the Arab Street is enraged, and people turn out in huge tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, the Iranians may be under enormous pressure, and Hezbollah also, to join the fray.

Brian Anderson: The president visited Israel last week, in a show of solidarity. He submitted a request to Congress for a foreign aid package that includes $14 billion for Israel security. How does U.S. support of Israel shape this conflict in your view, both in terms of bolstering Israel’s defense and, as you were describing, deterring further escalation from other groups? I wonder how that’s going to play out.

Judith Miller: I think the money, Brian, is important, but much more important to Israel at its moment of suffering and vulnerability was the Biden trip itself. Biden’s bear hug with Bibi Netanyahu, his assurance that, you are not alone. I think that’s as, if not more important than the money. And there’s something else that I think is really important, and that is the United States has dispatched several senior military officials, among them a three-star Marine Lieutenant General James Glynn, to the area to advise the Israelis on military strategy. The United States is not going to participate if it can help it in this fight, but advising on military strategy. And also now we see the Biden administration cautioning Israel that they do not see a clear pathway at this point to achieving the objectives that you laid out earlier, those three objectives, that the United States military does not think that Israel has thought this through or prepared for what is going to be an extraordinarily tough fight on the ground in Gaza.

Brian Anderson: Right. During the attacks on October 7, Hamas took more than 200 hostages, has held them captive in Gaza since. Several governments, including those of Egypt and Qatar, have been working with Israel to negotiate their release, and I think four have been released so far. The U.S. and several European governments have been urging Israel to delay this ground invasion of Gaza to allow more time to negotiate for the release of hostages. So how is this going to play out? What is the likelihood that Hamas would continue freeing hostages?

Judith Miller: Well, this is Hamas’s game, this is why it callously and in violation of every international law seized hostages including children. There are a number of children and elderly people and handicapped people, in violation of all morality and ethics. And now what one sees in Israel is a growing belief that Israel should continue negotiating for the hostages, that saving Jewish lives at this point should trump the desire to go in and wipe out Hamas. Which may not be doable at all, but that negotiating for the hostages, as odious as it is to deal with Hamas, is the wiser course of action. And that’s a view that is really beginning to pick up steam in Israel now.

Brian Anderson: Has that been a traditional pattern for Israel, to negotiate for kidnapped citizens?

Judith Miller: Yes, Israel has always placed a huge premium on returning its citizens no matter where they are or rescuing them. As Bibi Netanyahu knows all too well because his brother died in the successful operation to liberate Israeli hostages who were being held in Uganda at the Entebbe Airport affair. And so Israel will even release prisoners and stop military action to secure the return of dead Israelis, just the bodies. It’s been that important. So this is very much in keeping with Israel’s long-term values.

Brian Anderson: This Monday, the Israeli government hosted a viewing of raw footage from the attacks for international journalists. This footage which was taken from Hamas assailants’ body cameras and the social media accounts of victims, soldiers and emergency workers, among other sources, and depicts the utter savagery of this onslaught. Correspondence at the screening have described maimed and brutalized corpses, barbaric executions. Israel says that it has released the video to counter attempts to deny or downplay the atrocities. Why do you think it is important for the world to understand the extent of the brutality of these attacks?

Judith Miller: I think in a lot of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations and protests that have erupted not only in Europe but in our own country, there is almost no mention of that savagery and brutality, which has prompted Israel to take these extraordinary steps. I think one of the happiest days for many Israelis was the day that Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister, decided to get out of Gaza and rid Israel of its occupation of Gaza. I mean, you don’t hear in these pro-Palestinian protests the context of Israel having left Gaza and into the hands, alas, of Hamas, which sees power from the Palestine authority. This is a really traumatic moment for Israel. And yes, you’re seeing these dynamics play out in an extraordinary, and I would say as somebody who’s been covering Israel for almost 50 years, unprecedented way.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned Egypt’s role earlier before we came on. Egypt has been involved with the release of the latest hostages, correct?

Judith Miller: Correct. And in fact, the Israelis would much prefer to deal with the Egyptians than Qatar because Qatar has for decades supported the most extreme fundamentalists, even welcomed them in their own country. A couple of spokesmen for Hamas actually live in Doha, the capital of Qatar. So Egypt’s entry into this fray as a negotiator, as a mediator, has reassured Israel that a country that made peace with it in 1978 is working to secure the release of the hostages. Now, I must say this about Egypt. Egypt ruled Gaza for two long periods between the Israeli wars, and they didn’t have a welcoming experience with that occupation either. The Egyptians do not want to reoccupy Gaza, they do not want Palestinians in their country, which is one of the reasons why it has not opened a humanitarian corridor and it hasn’t permitted Palestinians, even dual nationals, to come into Egypt and seek refuge. Egypt, which has over 100 million people, does not need another million Palestinians claiming to want to be good Egyptians.

Brian Anderson: Final question, and this is obviously speculative. It’s just the question of why now? Why has this happened? Why, if the Wall Street Journal’s reporting is correct, was Iran involved with this and basically signing off on this attack at this moment? Is there a geopolitical context for this that we need to understand?

Judith Miller: Yes. The geopolitical context of this terrible event is that I believe Iran was very afraid of the trend of Arab governments to accept Israel, to negotiate peace with Israel.

Brian Anderson: As with Saudi Arabia?

Judith Miller: And that was what was going on at this time. And in fact, a few weeks before this, Bret Baier of Fox News had seen Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and he had indicated he had publicly discussed the talks and the likelihood of progress towards a recognition of Israel, and Iran is dead set against that. So I’m sure the geopolitical context of this played some role in the timing. Though we won’t know until several investigations are conducted.

Brian Anderson: All right. Well Judy, thank you very much. Don’t forget to check out Judith Miller’s work on the City Journal website, it’s www.city- journal.org. We’ll link to her author page in the description, and you can find her on X @JMfreespeech, that’s @JMfreespeech. You can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal and on Instagram @Cityjournal_mi. And as usual, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a good rating on iTunes. Judy, thank you very much.

Judith Miller: Thank you, Brian.

Photo: chameleonseye/iStock

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