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Swords of Iron

Opinion: Don’t promise victory when there are hostages in Gaza

The cabinet ministers, and the prime minister himself, should understand that messaging victory when the hostages are still not home is not likely to convince us.

“We must persist in our efforts to defeat Hamas. Only continuation of the fighting and victory over Hamas will enable the return of the hostages.” This is the narrative we have been hearing since October 7, particularly after the initial release of hostages at the end of November. The messaging coming from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the cabinet is that combat is the only solution, both to secure a decisive victory and to bring the remaining hostages home. But the passage of time works against the hostages and increases the sense that we Israelis are trapped in an intractable quagmire. When you couple this with recent difficult news items revealing the sad fate of some of the hostages, the official messaging has been drained of its persuasive power.

Some, from the outset, have been unable to accept the framing of a combat plan that is intertwined with the release of the hostages. In the past few days, more than a few voices have been heard asking whether it is in fact possible to link the two actions. Many Israelis have stopped believing the message that it is operationally possible to both fight and win and return the hostages. Others find a fatal flaw in the logic: how can we fight and defeat the kidnappers without also harming the kidnapped?

Gadi Eisenkot, a former IDF chief of staff and current government minister without portfolio but with commendable courage, broke through the wall of silence over the linkage between military victory and the return of the hostages. During an appearance on the popular Israeli investigative journalism TV show Uvda (fact), he said that the first priority should be to bring the hostages home, even at the cost of stopping the war. If the two things are in opposition to each other, that is, if the dilemma is to choose between defeating Sinwar or returning the hostages, the scales must tilt in favor of the hostages.

I AM one of those who believed from the beginning that the two goals were not compatible. Not because I am a military or operational expert, but because I have some understanding of human psychology and how people think.

The government’s message could not be sustained. The prime minister failed in his framing of the war, not only because the battle plan so far has not defeated Hamas, but also because it has not resulted in the return of the remaining hostages. He failed because he did not take into account one of our human psychological biases: loss aversion.

Loss aversion means that we hate losing much more than we love winning. This important theory of decision-making was developed by the acclaimed Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for the work he did with Tversky, who died in 1996. Netanyahu should have known this when he chose to frame the war as a pursuit of unequivocal victory.

Psychological studies have shown that the intensity of the pain of losing is significantly greater than the intensity of our satisfaction from winning. Some contend that the pain of losing is twice as powerful as the joy of winning and profiting. The pain of losing $100 is much greater than the joy of receiving the same amount, and profit/loss framing significantly affects our decision-making.

After the events of October 7, and with 136 abductees still in Hamas captivity, the citizens of Israel are in a collective psychological state of loss, which is extremely painful. Loss aversion theory correctly posits that we do not want to lose even more than we have already, especially the hostages who have not yet returned.

Fourth month of Iron Swords war in Khan Yunis, Gaza,TPS

According to loss aversion theory, we will feel twice as much pain over the loss of the hostages as the pleasure we would feel were we to defeat Hamas, and the prime minister failed to take this into consideration. When, more than 100 days after the greatest single-day disaster the country has experienced, his message is framed as a decisive military victory rather than preventing additional loss, he has lost us.

JUST THE other day, 24 IDF troops fell in battle, and Israel is reeling from another aftershock of the devastating earthquake that shook us to the core almost four months ago.

Netanyahu promises us something we do not want – at least not to the same extent. He focuses much less on what we do want. We fear losing the hostages and our loved ones on the battlefield more than we want to win. Gadi Eisenkot gets it.

Israel suffered a cascade of failures on October 7, and between the 136 hostages still in captivity and the funerals that have become commonplace, we find ourselves in a mental riptide of loss in a sea of anxiety that more is on the way.

The cabinet ministers, and the prime minister himself, should understand that messaging victory when the hostages are still not home is not likely to convince us. According to recent Israeli Society Index surveys conducted by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), the Israeli public’s faith in this government has been in steady decline since the war began.

There were those who said that the families of the hostages should be silent, and not show that they want their loved ones back at any cost. Jonathan Pollard, ironically, even suggested that they be locked up. But in reality, they are the rational ones. What about the rationality of our leaders?

Published by Jerusalem Post