Hamas’ massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis and kidnapping of over 200 others on Oct. 7 was more than a national tragedy for Israel — it was also a massive intelligence failure. Now, as Israel goes to war against Hamas, vital questions abound: Why didn’t Israeli leadership see this coming? If Israel defeats Hamas, what will take its place? And what are the odds that Israel’s greatest ally, the United States, could get pulled into a direct role in the conflict?
Amos Yadlin has unique insights into all these questions. The 71-year-old former Israeli intelligence chief, who oversaw the destruction of Syria’s nascent nuclear program and the serial sabotage of Iran’s, has emerged as a key voice on the crisis, briefing members of Israel’s war cabinet. For the last 12 years, he’s served as the head of Israel’s highly influential Institute for National Security Studies, and he remains a security eminence grise.
In a new interview with POLITICO Magazine conducted via Zoom over two days last week, Yadlin offered a useful window into official Israeli thinking on the escalating war — from solutions to the ongoing hostage crisis to the challenge of avoiding Palestinian civilian casualties.
Yadlin made clear that Israel’s policy in this war was not simply to retaliate for the massacre or weaken Hamas, but to definitively end the jihadist group’s 16-year rule in Gaza.
“We are going to destroy Hamas, as Nazi Germany was destroyed,” he said, adding that Israel would mount a global assassination campaign against Hamas leaders akin to the one it launched following the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.
Aligned politically with the country’s center left — he was the Labor Party’s candidate for defense minister in the 2015 elections — Yadlin attributed much of the blame for the catastrophe to the national distraction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to overhaul the country’s judiciary: “Netanyahu got all the warnings — from his defense minister, from the chief of staff, from the head of intelligence, from the head of Shin Bet and from independent writers like me, like others — that this is weakening Israel deterrence and endangering Israeli national security.”
Complicating matters in recent days, the Israeli media has been abuzz with reports of internal Israeli government deliberations over a second front with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, with the defense minister and other Israeli officials reportedly advocating a preemptive strike on the militant group and the U.S. cautioning against it.
Yadlin said Hezbollah’s “very cautious” behavior indicated a low likelihood of a second front developing. But while declining to go into details, Yadlin — who is privy to recent discussions between U.S. and Israeli officials — hinted that, in the event Hezbollah were to initiate a full-blown war with Israel, the U.S. might join “shoulder to shoulder” with Israel: “If Hezbollah attacks first, don’t be surprised — the U.S. may participate in this war.”
The following is a partial transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for concision and clarity. (Full disclosure: Yadlin is an advisory-board member of ROPES, an Arab-Israeli peace organization I founded.)
Ben Birnbaum: Israel has called up 300,000 reservists, many of whom are now massed on the border with Gaza, preparing for an imminent ground invasion. It seems like the government has decided to definitively topple the Hamas regime, but what does that entail, and what will take Hamas’ place?
Yadlin: OK, you’re absolutely right. The Israeli government has decided to destroy Hamas and to end its existence as the sovereign power in Gaza. The paradigm that led to this catastrophic failure was the paradigm that Hamas had become moderate, that it felt accountable to 2 million people in Gaza, that it was rebuilding Gaza, caring for the welfare of the Gazans, and that it was a responsible address.
Hamas is a terror organization that is committed to the destruction of Israel, ISIS-level, even worse than ISIS — killing children in front of their parents. … They even took pictures of it, posting on the social networks, very proud of their shocking war crimes. So Israel needed to change the paradigm.
We refer to Hamas from now on as the government of “Hamas-stan” in Gaza, a neighboring country that attacked Israel, and we declare war on this country. And we are going to destroy this state, very much like what the Allies did to Germany in 1945, very much like what the U.S. did to ISIS, to the Caliphate, in Iraq and Syria, 2014 to 2019. We hope that after Hamas is destroyed, the [Palestinian Authority] may come back to Gaza. There are even more innovative ideas of an Arab mandate — maybe a consortium of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — that will control the place. We are not there yet. It took the Americans years to try and destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or the jihadists in Iraq and five years against ISIS. Gaza is smaller, the Israelis are fighting close to home, and we can do it maybe in months — two months, three months — but it is not going to be so quick, so we have time to think about the solution as the operation goes on. But the goal is well-defined: Hamas will not control Gaza anymore.
Birnbaum: There are somewhere between 200 and 250 hostages being held by Hamas and other armed groups. How does this complicate Israel’s military planning, and what is the strategy for bringing them home?
Yadlin: You have to develop leverages vis-a-vis Hamas, which create possibilities to bring them home. It’s part of the war’s objective. They may be released through operational raids, much like [the 1976 Israeli raid to rescue Palestinian-held hostages at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda], even though this is not Entebbe — they are guarded better, they are dispersed, they may be used as human shields. It is very difficult, but I guess we’ll see some operations. And you can do it by negotiation. Personally, I think that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is giving the two sides an opportunity for humanitarian-for-humanitarian deals. There are kids being held hostage: 9-month-old babies, 5-year-old kids, young elementary school boys and girls. There are women there, there are elderly that need medicine. All of these are humanitarian cases, and we should try to get them out one by one. I think the finger should be pointed at [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar. If he wants to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, he should release at least all the humanitarian civilian cases that he took, contrary to any standard of human behavior and international law.
Birnbaum: Do you think in the end that we’ll be looking at some sort of prisoner swap?
Yadlin: You know, the source of the problem today is the prisoner swap for [Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit in 2011, when Israel released [more than 1,000] very dangerous terrorists, including Sinwar. So the Shalit deal was extremely costly. I think all options are on the table, and some prisoners may be released. We are not there yet.
Sinwar, at this moment, is in a euphoria, but I think within a week or two, he will understand the disaster he brought on the Palestinian people, and he will try to correct at least some of the [impression that] “Hamas=ISIS,” which is now a slogan that is accepted in the Western world, and hopefully he will release at least the humanitarian civilian cases. At the end of this conflict, the lesson to every Palestinian should be, ‘If you attack Israel, the price is high. Your organization will be destroyed. Israel will not return all the territories.’ We are not going back to the 2005 line [of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza]. This should be the lesson of what he has done. And at the end, very much like 1972 after [the Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes] and Black September, all Hamas commanders, leaders that participated in this Holocaust today, will be targeted and will be brought to justice or just killed.
Birnbaum: You said that Israel would not go back to the 2005 line. What do you mean by that? Will Israel maintain some sort of a buffer zone even after the invasion?
Yadlin: After the destruction of Hamas, we have no desire to control 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, but we have an obligation to ensure that a catastrophe like the 7th of October never happens again. So the way to do it is, as you mentioned, a buffer zone — a perimeter of one or two kilometers, well-mined with anti-tank obstacles, that will make sure that if there will be another intention to invade Israel, it is not going to be as easy as it was last time. And the idea that you pay in territory if you kill Israelis is also an idea that we want them to fully understand. But this is based on future security needs. Nobody in Israel will come back to live one kilometer from the border if there is no security zone that will ensure we have enough time to stop the next attack.
Birnbaum: You supported Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In light of everything that has happened, are you having second thoughts?
Yadlin: I think the principle of the withdrawal was right. Since we didn’t want to control at that time 1.7 million Palestinians, the idea was, ‘You don’t want peace. We will withdraw to what we think is the right border.’ Since this was done with American cooperation, the Americans insisted on the 5th of June, 1967 line. I thought that was a mistake. There were a couple of Israeli settlements in northern Gaza that were not entangled with the Palestinian population — we should have kept them. It would have saved the very easy access to northern Gaza [that allowed Hamas] to shorten the range of the rockets to Ashkelon and then Ashdod and then Tel Aviv. I think the withdrawal was a good idea. The parameters of it and the execution of it were flawed. But the policy of enabling Hamas to build up their military power was the greatest mistake.
Birnbaum: Coming back to the present situation: As part of its preparations for the military invasion, Israel called on more than 1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate to the south. As you know, the U.N., the Red Cross, a number of governments have condemned the order. What do you say to them and, more generally, to those who have expressed alarm at the number of Palestinian civilians who have already been killed in the Israeli military response?
Yadlin: I say two things: First, the evacuation of the Palestinian population is because we care about them. Hamas uses them as a human shield. Hamas wants us to kill civilians, and we want them to clear the front, to clear the area where we and Hamas are going to fight, and we don’t think that this is problematic. It is according to international law. The ones who can stop this war are Hamas. If Hamas says, ‘I’m returning all the people I took, and I’m evacuating Gaza,’ as Arafat evacuated Beirut in 1982, the war is over. They can blame Israel, but they are using the population as human shields. They are stopping them from evacuating northern Gaza.
Birnbaum: In recent days, there’s been quite a bit of exchange of fire with Hezbollah on the northern border. Israel has been evacuating communities there. What in your view are the chances of Israel being drawn into a full-blown second front with Lebanon?
Yadlin: When I look at [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah’s behavior, it seems like he still cares more about Lebanon and the need to protect Iran — and deter Israel from attacking its nuclear program — than he does about saving Hamas in Gaza. He is not willing to sacrifice Lebanon and to destroy Beirut for the sake of Sunni Palestinians that started this war without consulting him.
There are three levels of Hezbollah attacking Israel. The first stage is where we are today. Hezbollah is showing moral support for Hamas but not seriously starting a war with Israel. They’re attacking through the border with limited fire — one or two or five anti-tank missiles, a couple of mortars, Palestinian terror teams trying to cross the border, a couple of rockets. And Israel is reacting to each one of them. You don’t see them attacking deeper than five kilometers at the maximum and very, very limited. This is the first stage.
In the second stage — I think they will move to it when Israel gets on the ground in Gaza — they will move a little bit deeper and with heavier weapons like ballistic missiles or heavy rockets on military targets, not yet on civilian targets, and take the risk that Israel will retaliate in the same way, but still trying not to escalate to a full-scale war. But once we are in this second modus operandi, the chances for miscalculation and being unable to control the escalation can lead us to a war.
Here, we come to the U.S. role.
The U.S. doesn’t need to help Israel in the military operation in Gaza. However, the U.S. interest is to try and prevent regional war. So they sent two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean, basically conveying a deterrence message to Hezbollah and Iran: ‘If you attack Israel, we are with Israel.’ And this is the reason I think Hezbollah is very careful and Iran is very careful. Having said that, we have to be very cautious, because the intelligence was unable to discover the intentions of Sinwar, so maybe we don’t see the intentions of Iran and Hezbollah. But the strategic surprise is not there. Israel has its best military power on the northern border. And I think Nasrallah knows that, and so he will try not to start a full-scale war. But if he does, Israel is ready, and the U.S. may join — shoulder to shoulder. It never happened before. The U.S. supported Israel with weapons, with diplomatic support, with financial support. They never fought directly for Israel. In this case, the fact that Israel is restraining itself vis-a-vis Hezbollah brought a commitment from the U.S.: If Hezbollah attacks first, don’t be surprised: The U.S. may participate in this war.
Birnbaum: Is there any chance Iran would become directly involved, as they’ve threatened to do — say, by sending missiles directly from Iran?
Yadlin: The Iranians are very cautious, and they prefer to do everything through proxies. The Iranian strategy to destroy Israel is not through direct confrontation, which may be very risky for them. The Iranian strategy is to make life in Israel miserable. Very much like the barbaric attack of Hamas from Gaza and the Hezbollah firing of rockets at the civilian population from Lebanon. They want the proxy to pay the price, and the risk to Iran is minimal. That’s how they went after the Americans in Iraq. They didn’t attack the U.S. directly — only after [the assassination of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qasem] Soleimani, and also very calculated and limited.
Birnbaum: What would full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah look like?
Yadlin: Hezbollah will try to launch their ballistic missiles to the centers of power of Israel — air force bases, intelligence bases, the missile defense of Israel and maybe the power stations. They will try to destroy Israel as much as they can, to have their commandos crossing the Israeli border very much like what Hamas did. But in this case, they will lose at least the strategic-surprise advantage, because the Israeli military is now all over the place. And the Israeli forces are ready to protect and then to attack Hezbollah. At the end of such a war, Beirut will be destroyed — very much like Gaza. Israel will have to destroy the three main components of Hezbollah’s might, which is the ballistic missiles, the Radwan force on the border — this is their commando units — and the air defense that they built. Nasrallah will not be with us at the end of this war. And Lebanon as a state will pay a very high price. It will be a very devastating war — for both sides. And both sides know that and are trying to avoid it.
Birnbaum: How much of these failures would you attribute to Israel’s domestic crisis over the judicial overhaul?
Yadlin: There were nine months that Netanyahu pushed Israel into a domestic crisis that took all the energy of everybody. The attention of Israel was inside and not outside. And Netanyahu got all the warnings — from his defense minister, from the chief of staff, from the head of intelligence, from the head of Shin Bet and from independent writers like me, like others — that this is weakening Israel deterrence and endangering Israeli national security, that he is risking and weakening every source of Israeli power — the high-tech industry, the Air Force, the intelligence, the deterrence, the relations with the world, with the U.S.
Netanyahu also has to be blamed for releasing Sinwar and hundreds of other dangerous terrorists [in the 2011 Shalit deal]. And he conflated Hamas with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah because the PA was a body that he should negotiate with, and he didn’t want to negotiate. So he said, ‘OK, Hamas is not that dangerous, we can live with it. Every three, four years, we’ll do a round of exchange of fire. But this is not the most dangerous enemy of Israel.’
Birnbaum: You’re a longtime supporter of the two-state solution. In your opinion, from an Israeli perspective, did what happened strengthen or weaken the case for a Palestinian state?
Yadlin: Weaken, dramatically. By the way, I’m a supporter of a two-state solution, but with zero military presence in the Palestinian state, because I know what the Palestinians want to do. We went through decades of terror, and exactly what happened on Simchat Torah is making me — a security hawk and political dove — even more strict on security. This attack will move the Israeli public even more to the right. The right already blames Oslo and the Disengagement. And the idea that we can give the Palestinians the capability to build even security forces at the levels that the PA has — this will be very difficult now. The only reason that the polls are not showing a move to the right is Netanyahu, because Israelis blame Netanyahu, even on the right. But when Netanyahu departs, getting a two-state solution will become more difficult.
Birnbaum: President Biden visited Israel after the Hamas attack. Are you satisfied with his administration’s response thus far?
Yadlin: I think this is a very friendly administration, and Biden personally is the best president toward Israel. He’s not shy to say that he’s a Zionist — that you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist. He still remembers the Holocaust. His two speeches belong to the Hall of Fame of speeches. He was empathic. He was making a moral statement that supports Israel. He promised Israel a lot of assistance and security and gave us the sense that we have an ally, that we are fighting together against this very cruel terrorist organization.
Having said that, America has its own interests, and one of the interests is that the war will not escalate to the north and to Iran, so Biden urged Netanyahu not to launch a preemptive strike against Hezbollah. He is also concerned about the Palestinians. He wants a two-state solution. He cares about the Palestinians who are not terrorists, who are under the Hamas control and unfortunately being used as human shields. He supports the war’s objective, to destroy Hamas, but he asked Israel to do it according to international law, with minimum suffering to innocent people.
Birnbaum: Some Republicans have criticized the Biden administration’s recent deal with Iran that unfroze $6 billion in oil revenues, saying it indirectly or even directly helped finance these attacks. Is there any merit to those charges?
Yadlin: America is now approaching an election, and the two sides will use arguments against each other. I’m looking at something that is more encouraging — that Israel is again becoming a bipartisan issue on the Hill, with both parties supporting Israel. This is not the case on the [college] campuses. Over there, the [boycott, divestment and sanctions] and Palestinian supporters are still quite influential. … But in Washington, you see bipartisan support for Israel, and this is what’s important.
Birnbaum: Prior to these events, Israel and Saudi Arabia were engaged in intense negotiations to normalize their relations with the support of the Biden administration. Is it fair to say that this effort will be on hold indefinitely?
Yadlin: In the short run, it seems like it’s dead. Look at last night, when Hamas falsely accused Israel of what Islamic Jihad did to the hospital in Gaza. [Editor’s note: The explosion of Gaza’s al-Ahli Arab Hospital on Oct. 17 prompted an information war, with each side blaming the other for the incident. A video analysis by the AP appears to show that the explosion resulted from a rocket fired from Palestinian territory that broke up mid-air, part of which crashed to the ground.] And Arabs went to the street. In this atmosphere, even though it was motivated by the false psychological warfare of terror organizations that has no connection to the truth, it makes such a deal more difficult.
However, I think that the attack of Hamas is showing normal Muslims that this is an organization that doesn’t represent the culture of most of the Arab world. And if Hamas is destroyed fast, we will still have enough time before the deadline — basically in the spring, when the 2024 campaign starts. It is still possible that this event will make such an alliance of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran even more urgent, because if Iran is standing behind the attack, they can do something like that in other parts of the Middle East.
Birnbaum: Let’s speak briefly about Israel’s existing partners in the region — Egypt, Jordan and now the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Are you satisfied with what you’ve been hearing and seeing from these five countries?
Yadlin: I am not satisfied with the reaction of Egypt and Jordan. They cannot justify such an attack. They should denounce it, the way the UAE did. If you listen to the UAE representative at the UN Security Council, she spoke the truth — that this mass murder has no justification, that they’re war criminals. She denounced it with the harshest language.
Sisi and King Abdullah were less in the right position, I guess, because of the internal pressures from their street. I’m not happy with it, but the tough time is still ahead of us. When the ground operations start, when we eradicate Hamas, they may again denounce Israel, but we have to do what we have to do after 1,400 Israelis were killed — the deadliest day since the Holocaust. We are going to destroy Hamas, as Nazi Germany was destroyed, whatever will be said in Amman or Cairo.
Birnbaum: On a separate note, you’ve been teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government recently and were a Wexner Fellow there when you were younger. The Wexner Foundation announced this week that it was cutting ties with Harvard over the administration’s response to the massacre, which the foundation considered inadequate, and its failure to condemn a letter by 30-plus student organizations blaming Israel for what happened. Do you have any comment on that?
Yadlin: I personally felt these BDS organizations that support terror and Hamas when I taught a course in 2022 at Harvard, so I’m not surprised. They were near my class, chanting that “Palestine should be free from the river to the sea.” I was not surprised by them. I was disappointed deeply by the leadership of Harvard and the Kennedy School that did not denounce the pogrom, the mini-Holocaust that was carried out against innocent people….
However, I’m not sure that terminating the Wexner program, which was an excellent program, and leaving the Kennedy School to these BDS terror supporters without the presence of 10 distinguished Israeli students on campus is a smart move. We have to fight these people. And we can win because we are the just side. They support terror, and we support peace. It was easy for me in the class to convince my students. Some of them were Arabs, some of them were from the progressive side, but we had a dialogue. These people support terror, and they refuse to have a dialogue. And Harvard should change its approach to them if they think that they want to be on the moral side. With all due respect to the First Amendment, there are some moral principles that are more important.
Birnbaum: And last question: I really haven’t seen this outpouring of sympathy for Israel across the world since at least the Second Intifada, maybe in my lifetime. Do you think this is fleeting? Or has something in the global consciousness of this conflict shifted?
Yadlin: Whenever the Jewish people are killed — slaughtered, raped, removed from their place — people support the victim. People understand who we’re fighting with, why we cannot allow a Palestinian terror state zero distance from on our border. And we are encouraged by the broad support from the United States — and even from Europe. I prefer not to be a victim and not to get sympathy. But I think the case for Israel is now much stronger.