Opinion Articles

Protest politics endangers the hostages

No matter what we think of the government, our duty is to ensure that nothing delays the return of the captives in Gaza

There is not a day when the fate of the 129 hostages now in Hamas captivity does not fill my heart and mind. It is the same for the absolute majority of Israelis. The hostages are our brothers and sisters. Their suffering, especially after the testimonies of the released hostages, stirs us all and makes us want to bring them home as quickly as possible. There is almost no one in Israel, on the street or in the leadership, right or left, who does not feel this way.

That includes the activists of the protest movement against the judicial reform, who gathered to protest for 40 weeks, until October 7th interrupted it. Yet the organizers declared that the protests were to resume officially last Saturday night, and rebranded the protests as a call for the return of the hostages. That was a dangerous move for the country, and dangerous for the hostages themselves.

The coalition that has been leading Israel for the past year is, in my view, a bad government. It was so before October 7th, and particularly bad because of its attempt at judicial overhaul. I joined the hundreds of thousands of others in taking to the streets in protest every week. Moreover, after October 7, there can be no doubt about who bears responsibility, especially the man at the helm. The government’s conduct since that disastrous day has deserved criticism, which I have expressed.

And yet, in view of the fact that there is a unity government, and while the war is still raging in Gaza with bad news is constant, a protest calling for its replacement at this point in time is ill-advised and counterproductive.

Conflating the call to change the government with the call to bring the hostages home, as this incarnation of the protest movement has done, is bad for those still held captive in Gaza. It threatens to drag the return of the hostages, a national mission that must remain above the political fray, into the vitriolic crossfire of endless debate between the only-Netanyahu camp and the anyone-but-Netanyahu camp. It risks derailing the current consensus that is the desire for their release and relegating it to another skirmish on the political battlefield. It risks reducing the captives to just another issue in the relentless fight between rival political camps, while their loved ones are aching for their return.

The massacre in the Gaza envelope in all its horror, and the brothers, fathers, and sons dying in Gaza, have created a sense of unity. But this unity does not seem to have seeped down to the political fringe that is now leading the protest.

When the protesters returned to the streets Saturday night, they did so in smaller numbers than before October 7th, but they brandished the same signs emblazoned with the Hebrew word for “Go!” (an imperative aimed at Netanyahu and his government) and chanted other familiar slogans of virulent criticism from the protests earlier in the year.

New placards attesting to the new reality also appeared among the old ones. As much as the meaning of the “Go” posters expanded because of the October 7 disaster and the war that followed in its wake, others focused on the hostages, crying out for their release, at any price: “Everyone. Now.”

The question of how to return the hostages home is weighty and complex. But the answer should not be compounded by concerns of political allegiance. Rather, it must come from a clear-eyed assessment of reality.

The Israeli political dispute that has been intensifying in recent years is not in the best interests of the State of Israel, Israeli society, or the ability to conduct substantive discussions regarding the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s rule. Almost everything is divided along the narrow and corrosive lines of “Bibi” and “anyone-but-Bibi.”

In the eyes of staunch Bibi-ists, Netanyahu is the savior, his actions beyond reproach. In the eyes of the anyone-but-Bibi-ists, Netanyahu is Machiavelli incarnate. Every statement or decision he makes is labeled as tricky and self-serving, with no possibility, in their view, that he is working for the benefit of Israel and Israelis.

Unfortunately, the entire political system has been refracted through this prism. Elections have been conducted repeatedly on this basis. Governments have risen and fallen on this premise. And it is essentially from this perspective that every government decision, policy proposal, and public issue is scrutinized, almost reflexively.

The call of the families of the hostages, and that of all of us along with them, to bring the hostages home must be heard. Bringing them home is the duty of all of us, and any whiff of turning them into yet another political bone of contention must be nipped in the bud. Anyone who cares about the fate of the hostages should call on the protesters and politicians from all sides to prioritize their return. And for that to happen, we must free the discussion from the grip of petty and dangerous politics.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center. His book, ‘Being a Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century: Between State and “Synagogue” in Modern Israel’ was recently published by Academic Studies Press