Covering the Israel-Hamas War: A View From Journalists

Thursday, November 30, 2023
Photo by Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Columnist and Associate Editor, Washington Post; CFR Member (writing op-eds for Washington Post, with visits to Israel and Gaza City in mid-November)

Author; Columnist; Distinguished Public Policy Fellow, Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut (writing on North American media coverage of the war for Al Jazeera)

Chief International Correspondent, Independent (on the ground covering the war in Israel and Gaza for Independent since October 8)


President, C|T Group Intelligence USA; CFR Member

Journalists who have lived and reported extensively from the Middle East share their insights and perspectives on covering the Israel-Hamas war.

ISHAM: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to today’s discussion on “Covering the Israel-Hamas War: A View from Journalists.”

My name is Christopher Isham. I’m president of C\T Group Intelligence USA, which is an international consulting group headquartered in London. I should note as well I was—previously I was the Washington bureau chief for CBS News and before that chief of investigative projects at ABC News, and I’ve worked and traveled throughout the Middle East for years.

Pleased to say we have a very, very strong panel today to help us navigate this story: David Ignatius, columnist and associate editor of the Washington Post who recently traveled to Israel and Gaza City in mid-November; Rami Khouri, an author and columnist, distinguished public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut—Mr. Khouri has written on media coverage of the war for Al Jazeera; and Bel Trew, who’s the chief international correspondent for the Independent who has been covering the war in Israel and Gaza, has been on the ground since October 8. I think she’s on a brief leave now.

So let’s get into it. I would like to start at the top here just with a very lightning round from each one of you, if we could, on the current state of play. Will the pause, now in its sixth day, be extended? Will more hostages be released? If so, for how long? Just give—if you could give us kind of your quick snapshot of where you think we are today in the war.

Bel, why don’t we start with you?

TREW: Hi. Yeah, I just recently returned actually yesterday and the moment we’re in an extension to this four-day pause. We don’t know if it’s going to go on till tomorrow. I’ve been speaking to all sides, people close to the Qatari negotiators, the Israeli negotiators, people on the ground in Gaza, and the families of the hostages, and it seems that there is will for this to continue but it’s always up until the eleventh hour. So we won’t—we don’t know until literally minutes before the ceasefire was due to end whether or not it would continue.

And so I think this will be another case for today. Israel has made it very clear if they are given a clear list of hostages that could be released then they will extend the pause for an additional ten hostages but they need to know for certain that the hostages are able to be released.

From the Palestinian side I think there is a deep interest in the ceasefire because of the catastrophic situation in Gaza. So I think we’re going to see that happen again tonight where we may have an additional ten hostages released tomorrow but we won’t know until the last minute.

ISHAM: Thank you.


IGNATIUS: I would echo what Bel said. We’re in a period of pause. We don’t know how long it will last. There have been extensive discussions about the details for continuing exchange of hostages and provision of humanitarian relief. At a meeting on Tuesday in Doha in Qatar I’m told the particular categories for future release starting with elderly males beyond the limit of reserve service, women soldiers, males of reserve age, and then finally active duty soldiers, with a fifth category, a grim one, of the bodies of dead Israelis who either were brought across the line on October 7 or have since died.

Will those releases go forward? Certainly, there are reasons for both sides to want to do that. I’m troubled by the question of what comes after this period of hostage release and pause, however long it lasts. Does Israel intend to go back to war? If so, under what terms?

Israeli leaders from Netanyahu on down still talk about destroying Hamas. What does that mean, and is the world prepared to accept the level of Palestinian humanitarian suffering that accompanied the first phase of the war and presumably would continue?

ISHAM: They’re all great questions.


KHOURI: (Off mic)—to underline what we just heard, which I agree with, but the deeper and ultimately far more important issue is will this conflict, which is not an Israel-Hamas conflict—it’s an Israel-Palestine if conflict if you look at the West Bank and you look at other dynamics around the region and around the world—this is a continuation of a hundred-year war that started in 1923 exactly a hundred years ago when the mandate of the League of Nations was formally put in action and the British started the process of creating a national home for the Jews in Palestine.

For a hundred years this conflict has gone on and is getting worse and worse and worse. The underlying big issue that has to be at some point grappled with and addressed or resolved is the question of do the people of Israel and the people of Palestine have equal rights in front of God, in front of each other, in front of international law.

Do they have the same right to sovereignty, security, national identity, and all the other dimensions of life that human beings experience in the nation state that we use as the vehicle for our national expression these days.

That question has never been answered affirmatively. The Israelis and the Americans have always acted on the basis that Israel’s requirements are addressed, understandably, and then the Palestinians might get something. That process has brought us to where we are today.

So if the—this is similar to what we saw in Afghanistan, what we saw in Vietnam, what we saw in many other places, that the big power, the most powerful actor, in this case Israel with the U.S. backing, has to at some point acknowledge that the two protagonists, the Israelis and the Palestinians, have equal rights to life and statehood.

So that’s a big sticker item and it can be addressed but we’ll have to wait and see. If we stick to the small issues of who goes first and who does what then—and we keep the military action going on both sides we’re not going to get anywhere beyond where we are now.

ISHAM: Good point. So I’d like to talk a little bit about the coverage and the difficulties of covering this war.

Bel, you’ve just come back, and this war and I think as Rami just indicated is as much a war of ideas as it is a war of military conflict or starkly opposing narratives about who is at fault. To the Israelis Hamas is a terrorist organization responsible for the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust and which is hell bent on the destruction of the state of Israel.

To Hamas and many Palestinians Israel is a colonialist occupier that has displaced the Palestinian people from their homeland and continues to act with capricious violence against the civilian population, and what happened on October 7 was really an act of resistance aimed at the liberation of Palestine.

Journalists work on the front lines of this war of ideas as well as the actual war. You do talk to all sides. How difficult is it to present all sides of this conflict in an unbiased fashion?

TREW: Well, I would have to say it’s probably the hardest conflict to cover in that regard to get it accurate. Every word counts. Every use of grammar correctly or incorrectly counts. Every terminology counts and it also is important to put everything in context and very often in an article or a news article you can’t—you just can’t do that.

You know, Rami was talking about this not just starting now; this has been going on for decades and, you know, I would agree with that. I think if you just pick up a story at the 7th of October then you miss out on a really important context that might explain what, you know, led to the 7th of October on all sides.

I think the hardest thing about covering this is that the world, I feel, has never felt so divided, so polarized, and my, for example, social media time lines I have the sort of pro-Palestinian, I guess, group and then the more pro-Israeli group and it’s like watching two alternate realities pay out simultaneously and it’s very hard to hold that line in the middle to say the 7th of October there was horrendous killings and extreme levels of bloodshed but also to say at the same time this comes off the back of years of occupation, of a massive blockade on Gaza, and now huge killing and slaughter of civilians and children.

Those two things, when you say them together everyone is upset with you and I think also as journalists we’re learning all the time. You know, I have feedback all the time. Very often it’s negative. But you just have to listen and learn and it’s very hard because as I said this is—and as Rami pointed out, this is much more than just what took place on the 7th, what’s taking place between two armed factions, and what might happen at 7:00 tomorrow morning when the ceasefire ends.

This is a very long-running conflict with a lot of people who are very invested, and I’ll just add one more point here. Especially when you look at it from the Palestinian side, and I think also from Israelis—and you mentioned this when you talked about it being, you know, for the Israelis the worst attacks on Jews since the Holocaust—there’s intergenerational trauma here as well. And so as a journalist you need to, you know, take that into account, too.

But I think—and then just one other thing that makes it very difficult is there’s a lot of disinformation and that’s, you know, skewing people’s opinions about what’s happening, and add to that as a journalist I cannot enter Gaza unless I embed with the Israeli military, which gives me a specific view—a tailored view into what’s happening.

There are journalists on the ground in Gaza. A lot of them—some of them have had to leave, some of them are in the south—and that means that we do not have eyes on the ground and that makes it even harder because we—just to try and clarify what’s happening is very, very hard to do, particularly with communications issues.

So all of these things together make it really, really hard and with the world so divided it just means that, you know, as a journalist you’re treading a very careful, very difficult line and we often get it wrong.

ISHAM: Rami, do you want to add to that?

KHOURI: Yes. I don’t think it’s so hard to address both sides. It is definite—Bel is correct that you get pressures when you do that in the West, especially. But most of the world, most of the Global South, and much of the enlightened north wants equal treatment for Israelis and Palestinians. That’s so clear now, more clear than it’s ever been if you look at street demonstrations, you look at, you know, petitions, campus activities, all kinds of indicators, public opinion polling.

I mean, the world wants the Palestinians and the Israelis to be treated decently and equally. There’s no doubt about that now. That wasn’t the case fifty years ago. I’ve been in this business a long time. I started engaging with Israelis and Jewish-American activists in college in the United States in the mid-1960s and it’s a very different world today.

Back then probably 80 percent of Americans said that, you know, Israel is right and the Palestinians—they didn’t even know they were Palestinians back then. But now you’re getting much more balance all over the world.

So I think it’s really incumbent on serious journalists like us to make the case to our editors and managers and corporate donors and others that the best journalism is the most honest journalism. We are not advocates in the news sections. In the opinion sections we are advocates but in the news sections and news coverage we’re supposed to convey the reality of the world to the world and I think people can justify writing articles that give both sides’ views.

That’s not being done now very much on television. The print media is better. I must say the print media in the United States is much, much better—and Europe is much better now than it was thirty, forty, and fifty years ago. But there is still a general tendency, especially in Great Britain and the United States, not accidentally the world’s former and current leading imperial powers, to privilege the Israeli side for various reasons which we don’t have time to get into.

I think it’s our job as journalists to convey—chronicle and convey the realities on the ground, what people feel, what they say, why they say it, and why people should know the reality. So I would argue for much more vigorous journalistic coverage, even-handed coverage of both sides, which can be done without necessarily triggering war with your readers or viewers and this is what I think we should try to do. Do the best journalism we can, which can be a real contribution.

ISHAM: Yeah. Of course, sometimes facts can be stubborn and inaccessible in wartime, which creates confusion.

But I’d like to come back to where we are today a little bit. David, you actually surfaced this in your initial comment. What does happen when Hamas runs out of hostages, when this pause comes to an end? The Israelis, the prime minister, and others have said that they are committed to resuming the military operations against Hamas. The United States’ Secretary of State Tony Blinken is in Israel today. He’s already talking about the importance of limiting civilian casualties if hostilities do resume.

What do you see as the possible pathways here?

IGNATIUS: Let me just briefly address the previous question about covering the war in the simplest terms.

I think this is a period where people in the news business need to embrace fundamentals, which means report aggressively, fairly, with as much balance as you can but focus on what you see with your own eyes or what your colleagues who you trust see and report.

I think in that regard we owe an enormous debt to the very courageous journalists in Gaza who have been continuing to report, photograph, provide a record of what’s happening. It’s very important but painful to watch a city or Gaza, an urban area, enclave, under attack. I watched that in Beirut in 1982 and so I just want to note the role that they’re playing.

For me the ability to go from Doha and talk with senior Qatari leaders about the hostage release process to Israel and talk to senior Israeli leaders about the same thing with the same level of trust in me as a journalist to get the facts right and present them to my readers that seemed like the right thing to do, the right place to be.

So on your question, Chris, just briefly, what happens when Hamas runs out of hostages, based on what Israel says Israel intends to go back to war. Israel—Israeli officials as recently as a week ago were telling me they intended to go back to what they called high-intensity conflict in Gaza, do much the same in southern Gaza that they did in the north—separate civilians from military targets in an attempt to protect the civilians, they said, and then pound the military targets, in particular Khan Yunis where they think Yehiya Sinwar and other leaders are located.

I think the pause and the sense of relief that the world feels that the humanitarian disaster has at least been slowed is going to make it very difficult for Israel to go back to the kind of war it was fighting before.

So I think there’s a lot of talk in the Biden administration about different rules and expectations that would significantly reduce civilian casualties and would allow continuous flows of assistance to Palestinian civilians who have fled south, who, you know, as winter comes are desperately going to need assistance.

So I think we are likely to move into a quite different phase of the war but I couldn’t say how soon that will come or what Israel is prepared to accept. You know, it’s being pressured by the United States to do it differently but I don’t have an indication yet that Israel has agreed to do that.

ISHAM: It seems that the United States, in a way, wants to have it both ways. They want to be supportive of Israel and its military objective but they also want to limit the civilian casualties. Is that doable?

IGNATIUS: So just briefly for me and then I’d love to hear what my colleagues think.

I still sense a general support within the administration for Israel’s desire that Hamas no longer be the governing force in Gaza. I think the administration, as Secretary Blinken said, as the president said in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, would like to see a transition to different governance, stronger governance, better governance for the Palestinians and less threatening to Israel in Gaza and perhaps in the West Bank as well.

But who’s going to step up and assist that process and I think that’s the conversation that’s going on urgently with Arab leaders, with international—with many key U.S. allies, international forums that would be involved. But I don’t see that that’s reached a destination yet but I think it’s where people want to be going.

ISHAM: Bel, do you have any thoughts on that? You’re on mute.

TREW: Apologies. Sorry. I was just going to say, I mean, you know, as David said the Israelis have said repeatedly that they want to continue the war. When I’ve been having briefings with military officials recently they’ve talked, obviously, about that pushing south and David mentioned Khan Yunis.

I mean, this is—I mean, anyone—everyone I’ve spoken to this is impossible to protect the civilian population. There’s over a million displaced people who are in the south right now who are living in horrendous conditions. I speak to them every single day. They are camping. They have very little access to food. There’s no amount of aid trucks that can come into Gaza from Egypt that can fix this or sustain the situation that’s happening down there.

So any offensive deeper into Gaza into the south is going to be devastating and I think we’re—I think, you know, there’s—obviously, the U.S. has expressed some reservations about that. I think only if they do go ahead I think the world will see just how devastating that is, particularly as we already have a death toll that’s well over 14,000 dead including 6,000 children, which is extraordinary and horrendous.

I think in terms of the day after I just can’t see how this is going to work. You know, I was in the occupied West Bank just a few days ago. I was with Mustafa Barghouti and other Palestinian officials. You know, I don’t think anyone from the PA would want to be sort of enthroned in Gaza off the back of Israeli tanks. I mean, that’s kind of a phrase that—of Assad himself.

I’ve spoken to the Qataris. They’ve made it really clear to me that they do not want to be involved in some kind of Arab military force that’s policing Gaza. They do not want to see the long-term redeployment of Israeli troops and, again, none of us are here even discussing what the Palestinians want themselves, like, the people in Gaza. I think they would be—they’d be extremely upset that people are determining what their future is going to be.

I think there’s been growing support in some ways to Hamas because they now present themselves as, you know, as resistance whether you agree with that or not, and basically I just see an incredibly bleak future.

And just to add to that, it’s not even just what’s happening in Gaza. I’ve just come out of the occupied West Bank and I’m really concerned about what’s happening in places like Tulkarm and Jenin where there’s been daily raids from the Israeli forces—brigade level raids—where there are growing armed factions within these organizations, a lot of anger.

I think we could see something like the second intifada or the attack of the second intifada erupt in the West Bank as well. I mean, I don’t think this is just going to end with the guns going silent in Gaza. And, unfortunately, I just don’t know how we—you know, how this can be resolved peacefully with everyone having their rights and with the bloodshed ending soon.

ISHAM: Rami, can you pitch in on this as well? I guess the question here is can Israel succeed in a military objective of destroying Hamas and if so what happens on the day after.

KHOURI: Well, a couple of related points to answer that and the points that my colleagues raised.

Yes, of course, it can destroy Hamas like it has destroyed every other credible Palestinian leadership since the 1950s only to see greater Palestinian national resistance, greater technical capabilities, greater public support in the region and around the world, and a much more fierce determination if necessary to use military action as Hamas has done than before.

So the Israeli policies are really a fantasy land and they have been grafted now onto Washington’s policies since the 1980s or so. The U.S. talk of what Blinken says about well, we need to set up a new governing system is cartoon talk. It’s not serious.

The U.S.—Israel tried three times in the last forty years of my years of covering—fifty years of covering the Middle East tried to set up puppet regimes. It tried to do the south Lebanon army in Lebanon and that gave birth to Hezbollah. It tried to create village leagues in Palestine and the West Bank. That didn’t work, and it tried to create the Palestinian Authority with the people in power who are pretty helpless and embarrassing, actually, for most Palestinians, the PA government now.

Three times the Israelis have tried to craft a Palestinian governance system with the active support of the United States—training, equipment, guns, whatever you want, and it doesn’t work and they really need to give this up.

And the other point is nobody believes the United States now when it says it wants to reduce the pain of the civilians in Gaza. If that’s true where were they three, four weeks ago? The United States is fully behind what Israel is doing.

When the president of the United States sits in the war room with the Israeli Cabinet as they’re planning the war that’s a pretty serious signal, and then what happens in the five, six weeks after that is pretty serious evidence.

So I think we all need to shift out of this fantasy world that the U.S. is trying to promote with the Israelis and be much more rigorous in saying what’s the problem here—why are the people in Gaza and elsewhere still fighting after a hundred years.

And Hamas represents a new form of resistance that the Israelis don’t quite understand and the Americans certainly don’t understand because they didn’t understand it in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq or any other place where they sent their armies, which is Hamas is basically saying, we’re not going to play the game that Palestinian leaders and Arab leaders have played for the last fifty years of giving you the concessions you want and then we’ll see what crumbs we get in return.

That phase is over. The Israelis don’t seem to grasp that and the more that they use military force against mostly civilians but also against Hamas the more support Palestinians get around the world.

So these are the—I think that what happens the day after is that, you know, serious adults need to sit down with the Israelis and with the American leadership and say, look, let’s craft a serious negotiating process that looks at the true comprehensive, underlying causes of our conflict and tries to achieve a consensus that responds to the legitimate Israeli right and need for security and the legitimate Palestinian right for sovereignty, statehood, and security.

That can be done. I’ve spent the last fifty years, you know, talking with Israelis, with American Jews, Western Jews, Arab leaders, Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah. I’ve talked to everybody in the world in my journalism career and I’m absolutely convinced that this can be done if serious people try to do this.

There’s hints now coming out of Qatar, the talks, that this is one of the ideas down the road, that they’d like to go back to a big negotiation, maybe a Madrid II, maybe an Arab Peace Plan II, maybe a new U.N.-anchored but internationally supported process. We don’t know what it’s going to be.

But it’s not going to happen with the current Israeli and American positions and the lassitude of the Arabs and the total irrelevance of the Palestinian leadership.

ISHAM: David, do you want to respond to that?

IGNATIUS: Well, there’s a lot to unpack in what Rami said. I just would, I think, take issue with one strand of his comment.

I’ve watched now forty years of American efforts to deal with the aftermath of wars in the Middle East, the “Palestinian problem,” in quotation marks, and I do think—Rami may disagree with me—that American efforts on this have been sincere. Many laborers have gone into this and broken their picks, so to speak, but not for lack of trying.

The American inability to enforce its repeated calls to halt sanctions is an example—not sanctions, settlements—by settlements in the West Bank is an example of America’s failure in this regard. But the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt still stands. The peace agreement between Israel and Jordan still stands.

I don’t see people pulling ambassadors out of their countries. So I don’t think it’s as if the U.S. hasn’t tried. I think Palestinian leadership could have done better by the Palestinian people in the period that I’ve covered this than they’ve done. I have to be honest about that judgment.

I wrote at the end of a long piece where I spent some time in Gaza City, then spent a lot of time with Israeli military leaders, that I felt I owed readers my own assessment of what I’ve seen in this war and it’s reinforced my own view that a Palestinian state that allows Palestinians to have dignity and sovereignty and security is essential for them and essential for Israel as much as it ever was and that the United States needs in an emphatic full-throated way to argue for that, press for that.

But I disagree with Rami that the U.S. hasn’t been making serious efforts in that regard previously. I think they have. They just didn’t succeed.

ISHAM: I’d like to go back to Bel for one question before we go open it up to our viewers online.

Bel, you mentioned briefly social media. How much influence do you think social media has today in influencing the way people see this conflict both for people on the ground and people here who are watching it? How pervasive do you find it is at this point?

TREW: I think it’s important for people in the West to understand that, at least when I’m speaking to Palestinians across the board and a lot of people from the Middle East, they massively distrust what is called the mainstream media, massively, and probably rightly so as so many mistakes have been made and as a lot of their focus is on one side rather than the other.

And so I would say there is particularly amongst the youth, their access to the news of what’s happening and the expressing of their opinions is happening through social media which—and I think that’s something that perhaps hasn’t been completely understood.

That can also cause problems. I’m seeing a huge amount of disinformation. I myself have been targeted by that disinformation with accusations which haven’t been correct and I see—and other journalists as well have been suffering from that, too.

There’s also been a lot of AI-generated images that have been shared that aren’t correct. And there’s also been images from, let’s say, 2017 in Syria that have been, you know, shared. It happened just last week.

So it’s a dangerous place, as well, in that regard because it’s not a place of accurate truths. It’s not a place which can be policed and that has become even more problematic now with, you know, Musk taking over X formerly known as Twitter because a lot of the restrictions on, let’s say, you know, on types of tweets or bots have been lifted and so you’re seeing an extraordinary, kind of almost like swarming of information, disinformation, misinformation happening at the same time.

But I think from the—I would say from the Palestinian side social media is a lifeline because they do feel that so much of what’s happening is being ignored by the media and perhaps that is the case. You know, the—just in the—you know, the criticisms that I’ve faced being on the ground is that there’s a lot of focus on the hostages which, obviously, you know, it’s been horrendous for the families of the hostages and we’re seeing children returning or children in the case of this ten-month-old baby not returning, the focus being on that rather than, let’s say, delving into the Palestinian detainees or the women and children who are being released from Israeli prisons.

They are very much turning to, you know, social media and then maybe channels like, for example, Al Jazeera and that is also, I think, just creating a divide over what everyone’s experience is and what’s happening.

So I think in some ways social media is really important because it does offer that space but it’s also quite dangerous because it’s become, you know, an extraordinary melting pot of misinformation and disinformation, which can actually have quite a deadly and dramatic effect. And I think that’s come out in the fact that people just don’t trust media, specifically Western media.

ISHAM: I think the other problem is that it can create—exaggerate a situation that’s already very polarized and make it even more polarized because everybody is within their own silos.

But, you know, I’ve noticed that the numbers recently of younger people in particular being reliant on TikTok which, you know, obviously, is going to be limited in terms of being able to provide depth.

TREW: Yeah, absolutely. I agree.

ISHAM: So let’s—

KHOURI: Chris, can I just make one quick—

ISHAM: Yeah. Sure. Go ahead, Rami. Yeah.

KHOURI: —comment on what David said?

I think he slightly misunderstood. I don’t criticize the American lack of effort. I criticize the fantastical substance of what the U.S. is doing. The U.S. has worked very hard over the years so I don’t doubt that, and I know most of the people who’ve been involved in this they’re sincere people and they’ve worked really, really hard.

They just haven’t worked very intelligently and they haven’t worked on the basis of assuming that Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights. That was my main point, not to criticize their lack of effort.

ISHAM: OK. Thanks for that clarification.

Brianna, let’s go to the—our online viewers—I think there are more than 250 at the moment—for questions.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

And we’ll take our first question from Jane Harman.

Q: Good morning, everyone, and thank you to the reporters for your courage in going into very dangerous situations to try to tell us the nuanced truth about a horrible situation.

Two-part question. Number one, Bibi Netanyahu has a War Cabinet. We never hear about it or I never hear about it. It includes Benny Gantz, who headed the coalition government that Bibi defeated in the last election. Is anyone in that War Cabinet speaking out about the need for a different, slash, to my mind, better approach by the Israeli government? That’s part one.

And number two, Doha—as I recall, just a few years ago Qatar was boycotted by the Sunni Arab states for being too close to Iran. I think there are existential stakes here in the Arab world between the Iran faction close to Hamas, and proxies, and allied with other bad guys, and the more peaceful, you’d think, Sunni neighborhood. Shouldn’t the Sunni neighborhood be pushing harder for either a—maybe this is fantastical, but it’s my view—two states for two—for two peoples? It can’t happen tomorrow morning, but for better governance to achieve two states for two people and an interim force, perhaps, in Gaza that they would be part of?

ISHAM: Perhaps, Bel, since you’ve just gotten back you could address the first question on Bibi’s War Cabinet and maybe, Rami, you could take a crack at the question about the Sunnis.

TREW: Yeah. So I think what’s kind of extraordinary actually about this War Cabinet is the—I mean, because we’ve seen, obviously, Netanyahu and Benny Gantz at each other’s throats for several years. I mean, they’re opposite sides and, you know, Benny Gantz, you know, dethroned Netanyahu briefly and, you know, I think we—they have definitely, like I said, been staunch enemies.

But at least from my reading, and I could be wrong, there’s actually some alignment now. I think the 7th of October in the eyes of people within the War Cabinet was so heinous that they are—they have joined forces and they do agree in the way that they want to keep pushing ahead with the military offensive in Gaza apparently at any cost to the civilians.

So it’s quite interesting to see those two people who are very difficult, who have been very much against each other. I mean, Gantz has really gone for Netanyahu particularly with his corruption trial happening. Suddenly, you know, joined forces and I think that actually is a kind of microcosm of a general feeling of unification in Israel.

Israel is, obviously, incredibly fractured. We’ve seen massive divides just leading up to the 7th of October in terms of judicial reform and everything. But I think when you talk to people on the street there’s a general assumption the 7th of October there was a paradigm shift and that they are largely behind what has been happening and what may continue to happen in Gaza, and I think that’s reflected in the War Cabinets.

I think what’s interesting, just to add to that, is I’ve been talking to sources on different sides, the Qataris and sources within the government. There is division. It doesn’t necessarily feel like to me it’s between the War Cabinet but maybe it’s between intelligence services, the military, and the War Cabinet about how to go ahead.

It feels like perhaps the intelligence services in Israel are maybe less supporting, you know, an all out razing of Gaza because of the concerns about, you know, the impact on civilians, radicalizing youth, facing further different types of armed factions in the future. (Inaudible, technical difficulties.)

ISHAM: You’re breaking up there a bit, Bel. Yeah, I think we lost you there. Your connection broke up a bit. But I think we’ve got—we got your—the gist of what you were saying.

Rami, do you want to address the question from Jane about the neighboring Arab states and why they aren’t being more muscular in promoting a two-state solution?

KHOURI: Well, the Arab states are mostly governed by governments that are not very decisive, not very creative, and not really able to challenge the United States very much. Some of them are making agreements with Israel. So I wouldn’t look to Arab governments for any serious progress in the abstract or in a void.

So the issue—and the issue of Iran is really, I think, almost irrelevant here. Iran is a country that has its interest and has developed actually the most serious regional coalition of partners in what they call the Resistance Front which includes Hamas and therefore they are targeted by many people in the West as the big evil.

But, you know, Iran wasn’t doing this forty years ago. Hamas didn’t exist forty years ago. A lot of these things that—Hezbollah didn’t exist forty years ago. All these things that people in Israel and the U.S. don’t like came about in part, in large part, because of what the Americans and the Israelis and others have been doing in settlements and imprisoning thousands of Palestinians.

You know, there was—the idea that you get rid of Hamas and then you start to create a new government system that you can talk to in Palestine is fantasy land. It’s Saturday morning cartoon territory, I think, intellectually and politically.

The Hamas—before Hamas existed Israel was expanding settlements, imprisoning people, killing people—you know, doing all the things it’s doing now. There’s no—and Hamas agreed with Arafat that if Arafat negotiated a peace with—a comprehensive peace with Israel that the people of Palestine supported in a referendum, which would have happened if he had achieved an agreement, Hamas would go along with it.

So these are diversionary tactics and Israel and Zionist groups have done this for the last seventy-five years. They’ve tried to push us into secondary issues that are titillating and fascinating and sometimes important but the core issue is never addressed.

So I think this issue of the Arab world is important but it’s already been answered. The Arab peace plan has been out there for over twenty years. It needs to be expanded and improved and marketed more decisively. That’s what I argue for, the Arab Peace Plan II, which would include, I would argue—and this is controversial to many—we should offer a peace plan that includes a side or parallel global collaboration to regional Israeli-Arab collaborations to fight anti-Semitism, to fight apartheid, and to fight Islamophobia altogether globally and we included that with Arab plans for an Israeli and a Palestinian state coexisting on equal terms simultaneously. I think that might be quite productive.

ISHAM: Yeah. I think one point that needs to be made here is that the Saudis—of course, the Abraham Accords had already gone down this road. The Saudis were going down this road before October 7 of normalizing relations with Israel for—largely for economic reasons but also for security reasons.

October—the attacks of October 7 and the war—subsequent war have obviously disrupted that progress, certainly on the Saudi side.

I don’t know whether that can be resumed or when it can be resumed. I don’t know, David, if you’ve got any insight on that one.

IGNATIUS: I don’t. I think we’re all talking about a future in which Palestinian rights, dignity, ultimately sovereignty obtain international respect and support and in which Israel feels secure enough to go forward.

The problem is that the details are fuzzy. I mean, Rami has referred to them several times as cartoon like. You know, the sharply-drawn roadmap that takes us to this thing that’s, I think, now broadly desired I haven’t seen it.

I’m trying in my own reporting, as I’m sure Rami is in his, to talk to people who are at the center of this conflict and get their ideas and make what’s fuzzy a little clearer. I think it’s going to take very strong U.S. leadership to make progress now, and we’re heading toward an election campaign.

The ferocity of the Jimmy Carter heading to Camp David or even Bill Clinton heading to Wye Plantation I’m not sure I see. But it’s going to take that. This is not going to happen without, you know, it was going to be a contact sport.

Rami, I wish—I think the cartoon description doesn’t do justice to just how complicated this is and how many smart people are struggling, so far unsuccessfully, to describe it with precision.

ISHAM: Yeah. Can we get another question online?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Sarah Leah Whitson.

Q: Hi, everyone. Good to see you all.

I wanted to ask whether you see part of the problem in reporting in the U.S. media these internal biases of journalists that are reflected in, for example, assuming that the United States is responsible or has the right to determine what the governance of Gaza should look like, or this notion of focusing on U.S. statements urging Israel to avoid civilian casualties without really taking responsibility for or at the same time highlighting the fact that the United States is providing all of the weapons—nearly all of the weapons that Israel is using to commit its slaughter.

So we routinely see any reference to the Houthis in Yemen, for example, as U.S.-backed Houthi forces. I don’t think I ever see reference to Israeli forces as U.S.-backed Israeli forces or understanding them in that same light and I’m just wondering how much of their—you know, these sort of perspectives of internally believing that the U.S. is a good faith actor despite the record of political and military support which, you know, I think many observers particularly those outside the United States has created the climate of impunity, has emboldened Israel to continue to expand settlements, take land, and, of course, most devastatingly kill, you know, 14,000 that we have now but more likely at least 20,000 people when the rubble is cleared.

ISHAM: That’s a pretty loaded question. I don’t know. Bel, since you’re—again, you’re on the ground maybe you could reply to that.

TREW: I mean, again, I’m a British journalist, not American, so I’m not entirely sure if I can respond properly.

But I think Sarah makes a good point in the sense that there needs to be perhaps more questioning of Western—I say Western because, again, I’m coming from the U.K.—intentions on the grounds and biases towards supporting one side and to hold them to greater account.

But, like, as I said, I mean, I’m from the U.K., so I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer in terms of—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—American journalists feel in terms of internal bias with the U.S. So I don’t feel I can answer that properly.

ISHAM: David, do you want to take a brief crack at that?

IGNATIUS: I think there is a searching debate now in the Democratic Party, certainly, increasingly in Congress, about the U.S. role in the Middle East and support for Israel. It’s significantly different from what it’s been in previous decades.

You can argue that Netanyahu made the question of support for Israel a partisan issue by leaning so far towards the Republicans during the Trump era and really campaigning almost against Barack Obama. But it’s clear there’s been a significant shift in what—in the U.S. debate about Israel and the Palestinian issue.

In terms of questions about military support, I mean, I’m just being a journalist here. I don’t see a change in the level of support and so, you know, I think there will be a debate about it but I don’t see evidence that it’s changed yet.

ISHAM: Can we get another question, please?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Stephen Kass.

Q: Thank you.

If the Palestinian Authority is not capable of assuming governance of Gaza and the West Bank, who would be among the Palestinian people?

ISHAM: Bel, do you want to take a crack at that?

TREW: Yeah. I mean, I was just sitting with Mustafa Barghouti about two or three days ago, who is obviously not PA. He’s the head of the Palestinian—he’s a key Palestinian lawmaker and his point to me was, like, why can’t the Palestinians choose who leads them? What’s wrong with an election? Why can’t we have a sovereign state like the rest of the planet and why can’t we decide who—you know, who rules us?

And I think from the Palestinians’ perspective, again, I don’t want to speak for them but just as a conduit for people speaking to me there’s a sort of frustration that the rest of the world sees it as their job to come in and say: You shall be governed by this person or this person. We’ll have an international Arab force that comes in or we’ll have Israeli soldiers.

I think—and we saw this in 2021. You know, there was going to be an election. For many reasons it didn’t happen. But I think, you know, the Palestinians should choose who rules Gaza and that should be done in a safe environment where there are elections and where people have sovereignty and where there are, you know, the ability to be able to have different political opinions and people can be safe and, you know, there isn’t mass bombing.

And I think that’s truly what will bring peace is if you have citizens to choose who rules them rather than the West or, you know, opining about who should be put in place and I think that’s something that Palestinians in Gaza and in the occupied West Bank and around the world would probably agree with.

Again, I don’t want to speak for people but that’s at least what’s been said to me from various different factions. I think elections and people being able to choose should be the way.

ISHAM: Rami, do you think that elections are possible? Obviously, not in the middle of a war but if the hostilities calm down that elections are feasible?

KHOURI: Yeah, of course, elections are possible. What you need, assuming there is some big agreement that—

ISHAM: They just—they haven’t had elections either in the West Bank or Gaza for many, many years.

KHOURI: That’s right, and the last time there was an election Hamas won and after that all kinds of things happened when Israel and the U.S. boycotted it and pressured it and tried to do a coup and all kinds of things.

So the question really is—I think Bel is correct. You have to assume that the Palestinians have the capacity to govern themselves and they do. I’ve spent much of my life in and out of Palestine. I am Palestinian, and the people that I’ve met over the years including Hamas people and all kinds of—all movements, there is a tremendous human capability in Palestine, in the NGOs, in the university, and private business. It’s unbelievable the amount of human talent that’s still there including in Gaza.

So assuming there is a mega agreement to stop using military force on both sides that is guaranteed by international actors who are credible and not only by the U.S. which is not credible to many people but credible in the context of multilateral security, within that context you can have an interim management system for the governance in Palestine.

It can be even chosen by the Palestinians as a group of twenty, you know, wise men and women, and the women are particularly wise in Palestine because most of the men who are wise are in jail. And, therefore, you can have a transitional process run by the Palestinians moving towards elections if there’s guarantees that this is the beginning of a process for negotiations for equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.

We’ve never actually done that. Madrid got pretty close. The other things that happened at Oslo, Camp David, the Wye Plantation, were elements but we never had a serious global negotiation based on the principle that Israel and Palestine have equal rights under God and under law and in the eyes of each other.

So yes, of course, the Palestinians should have elections and then decide how to move this process forward.

ISHAM: OK. Thank you. We’ll take another question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Amica Ancou (ph).

Q: Thank you.

Actually, my question was related to some of the other questions and it’s been answered and so I’ll just ask it slightly differently, which is because I know this is a hard question to answer but it’s—you know, not—you’ve all given your opinions about what comes next.

I’m curious about when you’re talking to whether it’s American officials or Israeli officials what do they think? What is their understanding of what it means to destroy Hamas and what do they think will come next?

What are they expecting, especially American officials, given that they were supporting the, quote/unquote, “goal” to destroy Hamas? What is your understanding of what is expected on the American side and on the Israeli side to happen after this war?

ISHAM: David, you’re probably best positioned to take a crack at that, given your relationships to the U.S. officials.

IGNATIUS: So after a week of extensive reporting in Israel with senior security officials I concluded that Israel does not have a clear plan for what comes next. I’m sorry to say that.

They say, we don’t want to rule Gaza. We want out and we don’t want Hamas to rule Gaza, and pretty much any other formula is open for discussion. That’s not a plan.

The Biden administration is struggling to think clearly about a transition plan. It’s making up for lost time. There are task forces that are working under the NSC, working in conjunction with Israelis who are beginning to think more clearly about this, and it’s going to take them some time.

I’ll just mention one idea from my friend, a friend of many of the people, I’m sure, who are watching this, Martin Indyk, a fellow of the Council. Martin wrote more than twenty years ago that he thought that to provide a transition to really sound governance in a democratic Palestinian state a period of international trusteeship of a year or two to stabilize Gaza and the West Bank and make possible revitalized institutions made sense and I think that’s an idea worth thinking about now as we think about the transition.

Some entity—international entity—probably not led by the Arabs who won’t want to ride in on the back of an Israeli tank, as Rami and others have said, is going to be needed and that may be a starting point. But I think the—just the final thought I would offer is that these are really urgent issues but the work on them is just beginning.

ISHAM: Yeah. OK. Well, I think we’re just about out of time. I don’t know if, Bel, you have any last thoughts, or Rami. We’ve got about a minute.

TREW: Yeah, I just—yeah. I mean, I think the sort of—before we talk about the day after we need to talk about right now and there is a humanitarian catastrophe taking place in Gaza of the scale that we can’t even see because a lot of us aren’t on the ground.

The sheer number of people who’ve been killed is probably unprecedented in terms of the number of population and the percentage of people who’ve been killed and the number of children and the completely—you know, the destruction of north Gaza, the lack of all kinds of needs from water to medical supplies.

So I think right now the focus really needs to be on that and on the people in Gaza and on protecting them and ensuring that a ceasefire continues so that we do not see a further catastrophic loss of life before we can even talk about what happens next, and I hope that we will see an extension of the current ceasefire and a movement towards the protection of civilians, particularly children in Gaza, and the safe return of all the hostages to their families.

ISHAM: Thank you.

Rami, one last thought?

KHOURI: Yes. I think Bel is correct. Obviously, the immediate life conditions are important. But David is correct that the—we’ve got to really start thinking seriously about what happens next.

Martin Indyk is a good friend. I’ve known Martin since even before he joined the—became an American citizen when he was in Australia forty-five years ago and we’ve talked many, many years.

I disagree with the trusteeship idea. What we need is an international serious commitment to security and no use of violence by all sides. So if we can get that—you can call it a security trusteeship but not a trusteeship for governance because we have more qualified people who can govern themselves in Palestine than perhaps any other square—twenty-five square kilometers in the world.

So this is really critical and, again, it takes us back to this central point that I keep mentioning. If there is no clear commitment by Israel and the U.S. and the international powers that these two protagonists, the Palestinians and the Israelis, are entitled to equal rights simultaneously then we’re not going to get anywhere and this was, I think, Hamas’ message when they did what they did was that they—that the situation is not sustainable as it was and will never be sustainable until we move forward on the basis of equal rights for two equal people in that land and they can decide if they want one state, two states, a federation, whatever they want. So that’s my quick point.

ISHAM: OK. Well, great. I want to thank all the panelists. This has been a, I think, very thoughtful and insightful discussion about, obviously, a very pressing and important matter.

So thank you and goodbye.


Top Stories on CFR


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.