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Roundtable: What do ordinary Israelis want from their leaders?

Israeli citizens demonstrate in front of Knesset (Israeli Parliament) as hundreds of people stage the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister and the return of Israeli detainees in Jerusalem on April 07, 2024. During the ongoing demonstrations, anti-Netanyahu groups chanted anti-Prime Minister Netanyahu slogans. (Photo by Saeed Qaq/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Israeli citizens demonstrate in front of Knesset (Israeli Parliament) as hundreds of people stage the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister and the return of Israeli detainees in Jerusalem on April 07, 2024. During the ongoing demonstrations, anti-Netanyahu groups chanted anti-Prime Minister Netanyahu slogans. (Photo by Saeed Qaq/Anadolu via Getty Images)

More than six months since the Hamas attack on Israel, dozens of Israelis are still held hostage, over 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, and there’s no peace in sight.

Today, On Point: Ordinary Israelis look for a path forward.

Guests

Pnina Pfeuffer, founder of the New Haredim and leader within the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.

Udi Goren, Israeli whose cousin was killed on October 7th and his body is being held hostage in Gaza.

Josh Drill, served as a platoon commander in the Israel Defense Forces, now a leader in the Israeli Change Generation movement.

Lazar Berman, reporter for The Times Israel.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: There have been reports of attempts to reach some sort of deal between Israel and Hamas, one that could potentially lead to the release of several dozen Israeli hostages in exchange for a pause in hostilities in Gaza. However, just today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a meeting with hostages’ relatives, said that he would invade the Gazan city of Rafah, quote, “with or without a deal.”

This follows a phone call Netanyahu had with President Joe Biden on Sunday, where Biden reiterated his warning against a Rafah invasion, unless civilians are properly protected. Biden has called a Rafah invasion, quote, “a red line.” Currently, more than half of Gaza’s two and a half million people are in Rafah.

On the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that an invasion of Rafah would be, quote, “the biggest catastrophe in the Palestinian people’s history,” end quote. Netanyahu said that falling short of the total destruction of Hamas leaves the Israeli people in peril. Quote, “The idea that we will halt the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” the prime minister said in a statement released by his office.

The war has caused deep and painful political fractures amongst the Israeli people. Just last night, thousands protested in Tel Aviv, calling on the government to make a deal with Hamas, and created a large sign near the Israeli Defense Headquarters that read, “Rafah can wait, the hostages cannot.”

Meanwhile, far right ministers are threatening the dissolution of Netanyahu’s government. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich warned that Netanyahu’s government would, quote, have no right to exist unless Israel invades Rafah, according to the Times of Israel. Similarly, hard right minister Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeted that any deal, quote, equals the dissolution of the government.

Both men have called for the destruction of Rafah. So today, we want to hear how people, not politicians, are living through these divisions In Israel. We’re joined by Pnina Pfeuffer. She’s the founder of the New Haredim, a leader within the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, and she joins us from Jerusalem.

Pnina, welcome to On Point.

PNINA PFEUFFER: Hi, it’s great to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: Also with us today is Josh Drill. He served as a platoon commander in the Israel Defense Forces and is now a leader in the Israeli Change Generation movement. He was On Point back in August. He joins us from Tel Aviv. Josh, welcome back to the show.

JOSH DRILL: Thank you. Appreciate it. Looking forward to the dialogue.

CHAKRABARTI: And our third guest today is Udi Goren. He is an Israeli whose cousin was killed on October 7th and whose body is still being held hostage in Gaza. He joined us on the show in November and he’s with us from Pardes, Hanna. Udi, welcome back to the show.

Udi Goren, are you with us? Looks like his line just dropped on us. We’re going to get back to him in a moment. So Pnina and Josh, let me first ask you, and Pnina, I’ll start with you. What has the past month, a couple of weeks even, been like in your daily life in Israel? How much is what’s happening in Gaza, a part of your daily existence?

PFEUFFER: In a way it’s been less prevalent in my life than October, November, December, which was like the time when I was also running programs to help families reach families. So I was more directly involved in what was going on. But on the other hand, I was in the States for a conference two weeks ago.

I got back on a Friday and Saturday night was the Iranian missile attack. So it’s the new normal, which is completely abnormal.

CHAKRABARTI: And Josh, same question to you.

DRILL: So I would say in the past couple of weeks on a personal level and in my activities, I’ve been urging for peace and explaining why peace is the only way to stop this violence.

It seems to many Israelis, maybe even the majority of Israelis right now. Something that shouldn’t be spoken about, something that’s disconnected from reality. But to me, it is most logical, that especially after the atrocities that we’ve been through, that as a nation, as a country, that we fight for peace.

I think there’s no other choice. And as a part of change generation, we’ve been very certain in making our voices heard. That number one, the hostages need to be returned. Immediately. And number two, we need a new Israeli leadership.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, hostages need to be returned and new leadership.

Can you tell me in a little bit more detail then, beyond those two things, what would peace look like? How do you define it? Does it include an immediate ceasefire? Tell me more.

DRILL: In terms of a ceasefire and return of the hostages, which is a short-term goal, I think that piece is something that needs to be worked towards.

Not just in the Palestinian and Israeli leadership and sector leaders, but also that it needs to come from the grassroots. It needs to come from the Israeli and Palestinian people themselves. And I think that both of these movements currently are going through a spiral of silence. We’re a minority voice on both sides.

There are many that are scared to talk about peace. There are many that are scared to criticize their own leadership. But I think that making our voices heard, emboldening each other, strengthening each other, is the way forward.

CHAKRABARTI: Pnina, what do you think about that?

PFEUFFER: First of all, I find it very encouraging.

I know Josh, we were on a program together. That had to do with this subject matter, and in a different lifetime almost, but it was only a year ago, I think. I think it’s very encouraging that Josh is talking about peace, not just about an agreement. Or, like that word has been ostracized.

And it’s really day to day language. I have to say that he sounds more optimistic than I am at the moment, although it’s also my greatest wish and goal that we can reach some kind of a better, we can definitely be in a better place. This is like the worst. Maybe it can get worse, but this is [the] most awful situation I think I’ve seen in my lifetime in Israel, and I’m 45. So and I lived through the 2000s, the second intifada. I’ve lived through some things. It’s been bad. This is definitely worse.

CHAKRABARTI: Pnina, if I may, forgive me for interrupting, but you’ve said a lot there that I would love to actually hear a little bit more in detail.

So when you say this, there’s a lot that’s contained within the this is the worst and what specifically are you thinking about?

PFEUFFER: So first of all as Israelis, we’re all very shaken because we felt powerful to a degree, there’s always this, there’s this unique Israeli phenomenon where we are the victims and the superpower at the same time in our own minds, like we can switch from one to the other.

And I think now we’ve switched to the victim feeling. Despite the fact that clearly, we’re still a superpower, we’ve done a lot of damage in Gaza, and we continue to do. And that’s also, I’ve never been involved in Gaza specifically. I’ve been to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, I’ve done work, but no access and also probably less, just whatever.

So it just, seeing what’s going on there and realizing that at some point this is going to have to end, we all know this, whether we’re right wing, left wing, extreme, radical, moderate. We all know at some point that’s going to end. And I feel like there’s no plan for that ending. We don’t know what that means, what that looks like.

And that’s something that’s I think for all Israelis and maybe also for Palestinians. We just know the leadership doesn’t even, it’s not just not giving us answers. It doesn’t even feel beholden to us in any way to provide any explanations. Or, going forward or what’s happening.

CHAKRABARTI: So when Josh called for a change in government, to put it more bluntly, this being this current government, being the Netanyahu government, would you agree or disagree with that? Pnina, if you say that you don’t even feel like they’re representing the Israeli people or giving answers.

PFEUFFER: I don’t know. It’s not a matter of representing. I just don’t feel like they’re very interested in what we have to say, whether we voted them in or not. First of all, to be honest, I didn’t like this government from day one. This is, to me, a terrible government regardless of October 7th, but after October 7th happened, I don’t even know how Netanyahu is able to show his face in public. I just, really, it’s beyond my capacity to understand how these people don’t even have the, I don’t know, the grace to say when this is going to be over at X time and then we will leave or we will have elections or whatever it is. But I guess he’s just made out of different stuff than I am.

CHAKRABARTI: Pnina, hang on here for just a second. Because you said a lot of interesting things and I presume when you say just after October 7th happened, you don’t know how they can, he can show his face being Netanyahu, because of the security failures that allowed to let October 7th happen.

PFEUFFER: It’s also security failures, obviously where over a thousand citizens were massacred.

So that’s the first. Most obvious thing, but it’s not just that it’s this whole concept that he built of what Israel security is, relying on and the relationship we had with Hamas and whatever it was he thought was going to work, clearly did not. And he’s been pulling Israel in that direction and away from any other direction that people like Josh and I have been trying to campaign for years, and now when you have this massive egregious failure, you still think you have the right to keep pulling in that very wrong direction.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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