Jacob Magid, U.S. Bureau Chief for the Times of Israel, provides his take on Israel's efforts to destroy Hamas in Gaza, the U.S-Israel relations, the anti-Israel campus protests, the Israeli public’s reaction to rising antisemitism abroad, and the challenges he has faced as a journalist since October 7. 

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC.

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Episode Transcript:

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

How important is American support for Israel? What message is the protest movement on American college campuses sending to Israel? Jacob Magid: is the U.S. Bureau Chief for The Times of Israel. Our colleagues in Washington D.C. hosted him this week in front of a live audience of about 200 guests. But we had some questions of our own and he joins us now. Jacob, welcome to People of the Pod. 

Jacob Magid: 

Hey there, thanks for having me.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

So there have been a lot of reports in the media lately about a strain in US-Israel relations, especially after Biden's announcement of a delay in the transfer of heavy munitions and concerns over Israel’s plans in Rafah. Yet this week, Biden announced that it green-lit the transfer of over $1 billion in new arms for Israel, seemingly quelling any concerns about this rift. But what is your take on the situation? Is there a rift between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu?

Jacob Magid: 

It's interesting, because I think in the weeks and months immediately after October 7, support for President Joe Biden was at record highs. As at the same time, support for Donald Trump was plummeting, given the comments that he was making, shortly after October 7, kind of mocking Israel for not being able to foresee what what occurred on the seventh, as opposed to Biden who made this trip right after October 7, sent those aircrafts to the eastern Mediterranean, and warned Israel's adversaries not to get involved in the attack. I think there was real appreciation for what Joe Biden was doing. And I think it's amazing how much seven months can do because we've seen that support for President Biden completely, I'd say, plummet. 

There was a recent poll taken before this threat. But you can only imagine that it's only going to go down further, showing that now. Whereas earlier in the war, a plurality of Israelis supported President Biden over Trump in another election. Now those numbers have switched back, I think Israelis still do remember the steps Donald Trump took to re-open the Embassy in Jerusalem, to the Abraham Accords, the Golan Heights, all these different steps that he took when he was president. And I think that's more on their minds. And then they compare it to President Biden, they couldn't imagine President Trump taking those kinds of steps that he has taken, a public threat to withhold weapons that's a little bit harder for them to picture. And it's just more fresh on the minds of many Israelis when they're thinking about this current president. 

But I would note that it's not really clear what President Trump would do in this kind of scenario. I think there are a lot of US officials and Israeli officials I’ve spoken with who say that at least Prime Minister Netanyahu might prefer President Biden to President Trump because he's seen as someone who's more predictable, in regards with his ties with Israel, that while things have gotten bad, Netanyahu can also always frame himself as trying to stand up to the Americans. 

Whereas you'd have a much harder time doing that to Trump because I think he's a lot more beholden to him, will have a lot harder time saying no to Trump, I think Donald Trump, imagining a presidency where he's returning to the White House, I can't imagine he would be prepared to allow a war to continue for seven months, given his specific foreign policy agenda items, be it with Saudi Arabia or other places. 

But right now Israelis, for right or wrong, I think are very much shocked by the step that the President took. I don't think they saw a lot of the lead up that maybe the Biden administration was feeling, that there was a lot of warning given. And I think there's a degree of betrayal that I think a lot of Israelis feel right now. 

But again, things change so rapidly in this war. So that could switch again. And the Biden administration lately has been making a point to say this is just one shipment that we're holding. The vast majority of aid is still going to Israel, and we still have Israel's back. We're still determined to help them get rid of the threat of Hamas. But right now, Israelis, I think, are looking at it a little bit differently.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

How are Israelis viewing the possibility or the prospect of a more major Rafah operation and is there actually a difference of opinion among the Israeli population about how long this war should continue? 

Jacob Magid: 

Given the fact that over the past few weeks, we've seen, Israeli troops returned to areas that they were already fighting in several times, like in the Gaza City neighborhood of Zaytoun. IDF troops returned to again last week. This is the third time they were there and soldiers have been killed each time. And Hamas has managed to regroup and return to these areas the IDF previously cleared. 

But we haven't seen beyond leaks from the military establishment that has been frustrated with the Israeli government, with Prime Minister Netanyahu for not really forging some sort of plan for the day after in Gaza, some sort of body to replace Hamas be it the PA or anyone. Just something is what they're looking to be able to advance in order to complement the military achievements on the battlefield, you need some sort of diplomatic alternative as wel, diplomatic achievements. 

So I think we're getting to a point I would imagine where Israelis are going to start voicing some more frustration with the way the war is being handled. But I think it's going to start with a decision by Benny Gantz, the National Unity Party and also his deputy Gadi Eisenkot, two former IDF chiefs of staff who are highly respected among Israelis.

A poll show that they're the strongest, most popular party right now in the Knesset. If elections were held today. That if they take that step to leave the government and demonstrate that they no longer have trust in the government's ability to get a hostage tool to wage the war, I think then you'll see a bit more frustration amongst Israelis and with the path that Netanyahu has taken, be it in Rafah or other places where they just don't trust that the war is being managed well.

But until that happens, and I think Benny Gantz is very hesitant to take that step, because he knows that there are people he's able to straddle being at playing at both kind of dancing at both weddings right now, where he is very appreciated by both the more left wing people that might appreciate him being in the government to prevent the more far-right flank from taking steps that they don't agree with. And then on the right also for being a team player. And as Israelis like to say in Hebrew, to go under the stretcher and take part in the military offensive, I think he's able to beget appreciation from both.

But once you take that step of crossing the Rubicon and leaving the government, and I think you'll lose some of those people that appreciate you. So I'm not sure when Gantz is going to take that step. But I don't think this war will be able to go on for months more without him leaving the government. I think that if we're two months on and there's no hostage deal, I would expect, I think, that step to be taken. 

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Are Israelis growing more and more impatient, as the hostages remain in Gaza?

Jacob Magid: 

Yeah, I think they are. I think we're seeing an escalation of these protests that are led by the hostages' families. And they're increasingly willing to be aligned with separate protests that were much more definitive at one point about just toppling the government and demanding new elections. I think that a lot of these families of the hostages are starting to believe that the only way to get their loved ones back is to have a new government in place. 

Now, that's still not the feeling amongst all families of hostages. Obviously, there's 132 families that come from different backgrounds and feel different things about this government. But I think there's definitely a feeling of desperation amongst them. And I think there's a lot of sympathy amongst the broader public with how they feel about this government. And I think at some point that that will dictate the direction that things take.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Jacob, you mentioned earlier that the Biden administration's comments or threats, you refer to them as there's a sense of betrayal. Is there also a sense of despair? In other words, how critical is America's support in this war?

Jacob Magid: 

I think, Israel, at least official Israel since Biden's comments, has insisted that Israel can continue fighting the war on its own, that it doesn't need, obviously would love the US support them, it's very important, but that it has no qualms with going into Rafah or just in general fighting this war on its own. 

It believes it's an existential war, and that it has the means to continue fighting without necessarily US support. That's been the implication of these comments that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant have been making different framing of how they've responded to it. I think Gallant  is a bit more sensitive to the US concerns than Netanyahu might appear to be. But that's basically the implication. 

However, if you look just I mean, even Ron Dermer, a few days, I believe it was yesterday, he issued a speech basically saying that we have proven that we can fight on our own when we need to. But I think he neglected the point that I think it was April 14, when Iran fired 200 missiles and drones at Israel at the same time. 

It wasn't Israel intercepting all these drones on its own. It required support from the US, from its European allies, from even Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which is less known, but that these countries were needed to come to Israel's aid in order to to really intercept all those rockets, all those missiles and drones. 

And then I don't think it's totally accurate to say that we can do this on our own, we would have had a very different picture. I think on April 14, that night, had those rockets been able to penetrate Israeli airspace and harm civilians. 

So I think, yes, Israel does have the means to continue fighting in Rafah on its own, and then Gaza on its own, but the question of Lebanon is a lot trickier, given how difficult it has been to fight against Hamas. And we've seen as I mentioned, that the Hamas fighters have been able to return to areas that were previously cleared by the IDF that this has taken seven months, and we're not on the edge of victory, as Netanyahu claims that we are.

Just imagine how difficult it's going to be against Hezbollah. Which is even according to Israeli estimates, is far far far stronger than the kind of–it's a full fledged army in a way that Hamas might not necessarily be, as much as we underestimated Hamas.

But I think nobody’s under estimating Hezbollah and the firepower that it has, and the Iran backing that it has. And I think that Israel will need the US support in order to fight that kind of war. 

I think there was this feeling of betrayal. The Biden administration just sees it differently, that they feel that this war has been going on for seven months, and there's really no end in sight. And they are concerned about the civilian casualties. That of course, I think Hamas inflates the numbers. And we can talk about that shortly. 

But it's undeniable that the level of destruction that's been caused to Gaza. And there's just this feeling that without a strategy without a diplomatic path that Israel doesn't seem willing to approach, maybe it's starting to slowly talk a little bit privately about some sort of Palestinian Authority involvement in Gaza. 

But this feeling that we can't just kind of continue throwing our head into the wall without any real broader plan beyond this military approach, and that there is an understanding or a hope in the Biden administration that Israel will some at some point, at least, I think the military establishment is starting to get there, that it'll extend to the political establishment as well, except that we're not trying to do this out of spite.

I think there's a real belief that this is not the best way to go about it going into Rafah the way that Israel wants to go to it. That's how the US sees it. And that we do need to look at other approaches in order to maintain the US support that we the US says that we want to continue giving that we do believe in this eliminating the threat of Hamas.

That's different than eliminating Hamas entirely, which is how I think Israel framed it at the beginning of the war. So we're talking we're with you on eliminating the threat of Hamas. But let's take different steps to go about it. And we're still willing to continue providing our support in the meantime, not just for Hamas, but also the broader threats you face. The US have been very clear that they're not going to walk away from Israel on those.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

So you talked about protests by Israelis and hostage families in particular. Of course, we've had our own protest movement here in America, predominantly on America's college campuses. But they’re very different. Most of the American protests are calling for a flat out ceasefire and criticizing Israel’s response to the massacre on October 7. Very few if any call for a return of the hostages and many have been dominated by loud pro-Hamas and antisemitic elements. I'm curious how the Israelis have viewed those protests and what message they are sending?

Jacob Magid: 

I think that Israelis are similarly disturbed, if not more disturbed by what they're seeing on these campuses. And I think it reinforces a lot of what they feel like the necessity of the evil that they're up against and Hamas is kind of similar to the evil that is being framed on college campuses. And the need to frame it as an existential war to some degree, whether or not that is accurate. I think it's debatable. But there is a growing sentiment of solidarity, I think with Jewish students in the US that of what they're feeling is comparable, maybe not into military scale by any means, but definitely into the ideological scale of what Israelis are facing in Gaza. 

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Are they surprised by the growing sense of antisemitism abroad? 

Jacob Magid: 

I don't think entirely surprised. I think the fact that they live in Israel is testament to the belief that this is where they believe that Jews should be. I think there's less of an understanding I think amongst mainstream Israelis have the value and the necessity and even the it's totally okay for Jewish lives to take place abroad. I think there's a lot less of an understanding of the the Jewish experience abroad. I think there might be a little bit more understanding amongst diaspora Jews of the experience in Israel as much as possible, I think are two very unique experiences. 

There's not a Birthright for Israelis to come to America to really understand. I mean, a lot of them do after the army. But there isn't that same experience that I think that American Jews and many others are given privy to this real access and, and window into Israeli society. So I think given that I think I think there's just oftentimes when I've spoken to Israelis about this is there's just this assumption that, yeah, of course, there's a lot of antisemitism out there. And that's why you're supposed to be in Israel.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

You work here in the United States, but what are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a journalist for an Israeli outlet, since 10/7?

Jacob Magid: 

I have found myself frustrated trying to cover these campus protests where students aren't willing to speak to me because I work for an Israeli outlet. That was something I'm used to dealing with when I was over in the West Bank and covering Palestinian issues. And there were certain Palestinian officials who were willing to speak with me on background, as in not in name when it's published. 

That's something I'm used to, but now it's having to deal with that with American college students who aren't even, like there's no reason to be going to want to be anonymous, unless you don't like recognize the legitimacy of my newspaper, which I guess is fine, but even though I don't necessarily agree with them, I want to be able to tell their story and I’m unable to fully do so because I'm not getting full cooperation. 

So yeah, it would be definitely easier to work for in that regard a different news outlet where I wouldn’t have to identify myself but it's just kind of I think shows the absurdity of the times of it.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

So we’re speaking to you on Israel’s Memorial Day, before the transition into Independence Day. Are Israelis observing these days differently after October 7?

Jacob Magid: 

Oh absolutely. I spoke with a few family members and friends about the experience right now in Israel, they're just starting to transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut. There are some who are adamant about the need to celebrate this day, that the deaths aren't going to be in vain, that's our purpose. If we felt that it was always the case that we are supposed to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut right after Yom Hazikaron, the silver platter to make those soldiers and those who have fallen, their lives, give them meaning. And a reason to celebrate. That technically should stand true this year as well, even though the loss on October 7 was of a magnitude that Israel hadn't seen before. 

But of course, I think given the fact that we have hostages, who are still being held in Gaza, given the fact that the war is still going on, I think a plurality of Israelis, I'm sure are not going to be celebrating this year, the way they had. I think there are still interestingly parties happening; scheduled in Tel Aviv. I'm sure the clubs will be filled in a lot of these cities. I think that's still a sentiment that resonates. But I think Yom Ha’atzmaut is not going to be the same as it was in previous years. 

And Yom Hazikaron I think we saw what was happening in a lot of these ceremonies on military cemeteries across the country where government members were speaking. It's happened in the past where they've been heckled, but not to the degree that I think that we saw this year. 

From the Prime Minister down, a real feeling of anger, because this isn't just the average Israeli who might support the war, might support Netanyahu. These are people who lost the those closest to them, fighting a war that hasn’t gotten to the total victory that Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised, or just a feeling of resentment.

There's a pretty good example, a couple of weeks ago, where two names of casualties were determined dead by the IDF. One was Elyakim Liebman, from the settlement of Hebron, and one was [Dror Or] I believe from the Gaza periphery. And we saw over a dozen Knesset members, coalition members and ministers head to the funeral of Liebman, who was a real hero, who fought off terrorists during the Nova music festival as a security guard. 

Whereas this other person from the Gaza periphery, [Dror], who came from a community not necessarily aligned ideologically with the government. Nobody made any calls to them. Nobody visited, reached out to the family. And I feel like there's a real feeling of resentment and just dissonance between a government that a lot of Israelis feel like just doesn't represent them in increasing number.

I think, even if they agree maybe with the broader goals of the war, that they don't feel like Netanyahu and the broader government is handling it in the way that they appreciate. Even earlier President Biden was seen as someone who was more in touch with the hostages and than Prime Minister Netanyahu was. He reached out to them before Netanyahu did. 

So there's that real dissonance there. And I think that that anger came out during Yom Hazikaron. And I think is, is going to probably carry over, beyond into Yom Ha’atzmaut, and until there's some sort of breakthrough, either a hostage deal, or some sort of end to the war that Israelis would like to see.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Well may that war end very, very soon and may the hostages come home. Jacob, thank you so much for your work here, and for joining us.

Jacob Magid: 

Thank you Manya. Thank you very much for having me.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to tune in for my conversation with AJC CEO Ted Deutch about Jewish American Heritage Month and what it means to be a Jewish American hero today.