‘There’s always a day after’: Former chief of staff in Israeli air force talks about an endgame in Gaza

Since the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 last year, many Israelis have been unhappy and even angry that Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn’t brought home the hostages. There’s also a feeling among many in the military that there’s no strategy for the war in Gaza. That is a problem for former Chief of Staff in Israel’s air force Nimrod Sheffer. The World’s Marco Werman sat down with Sheffer in his home on the outskirts of Jerusalem to get his thoughts on the war in Gaza.

The World

Inside Israel, criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu is widespread. 

Some of the strongest critics come from former and current Israeli military, who say Netanyahu has no strategy or endgame for the war against Hamas — Nimrod Sheffer, a former chief of staff of the Israeli air force, is among them.

Sheffer told The World that Israelis are enraged by the unprecedented attack on Oct. 7, 2023, and that’s driving the army actions much more than it should be. 

“People are seeking revenge. They are looking for revenge first,” he said. 

Sheffer said he’s hearing more and more officers and commanders saying that they’re “going to revenge Hamas” and that they are planning to go back and settle in the Gaza Strip. 

“People are talking about religious war. People are talking about fighting in the name of God, which is never the case.” 

The World’s Marco Werman talked more with Sheffer at his home on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Marco Werman: Not disconnected from this are the soldiers who are posting potentially criminal intent on TikTok from the Gaza Strip. What do you think of that? And why do you think that’s happening?
Nimrod Sheffer: So, I’m looking at the political echelon and the political leaders. They are talking about potentially illegal actions, like going back to Gaza Strip, moving away the people, talking about building new settlements in Gaza — which is illegal by national or international laws. So when officers and soldiers, definitely young ones, hear [leaders say that], they say, “OK, this is legal.” I think I’m going to say the sad thing, which is difficult for me to say, but I’ll say it anyway: I think that one of the worst outcomes of this war is the price of human beings’ lives is getting lower.
How much effort has been made with Hamas to get the hostages back? 
I don’t know the details because I’m not in the room. But what I’m seeing and what I understand is that there’s no Israeli initiative to bring back the hostages. And my analysis is that Netanyahu doesn’t want it to happen or he wants it to happen, but he doesn’t want to pay the price for that because he understands that if the hostages go back home, all of them, the price would be probably be the end of huge military actions and then people will take to the streets. And that’s the end of his career as the prime minister.
A man holds up a sign with an image depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s during a protest against his government and to call for the release of hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas militant group, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 30, 2024. Maya Alleruzzo/AP
There’s something else that I’ve been hearing, and that is the possibility that many of the hostages are dead. If that is tragically the case, how would that be playing into the prime minister’s calculations right now?
I believe he knows — I hope he knows — more than we do about the hostages’ situation. The formal numbers are talking about 30 dead or more. The informal numbers are much higher. And we know the situation in Gaza, and we understand that every day that passes leaves us with less people alive. And the prime minister knows that because every Israeli citizen knows that.
And the cynical voices would say, “Well, Hamas, Hezbollah, they’ve stated very clearly they want to see the destruction of Israel. Diplomacy is not the way forward.” I mean, what would an international coalition urging Israel to go on a diplomatic path actually do if Hamas and Hezbollah believe that?
So I think that any state should tell its people, its supporters, and the world, “OK, we cannot live. We cannot live with a situation that 60, 70, 80,000 people are inland, deported people.”
Palestinians inspect the damage of buildings destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on Jabaliya refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City on Oct. 31, 2023.Abdul Qader Sabbah/AP/File
You’re talking about the people that have been evacuated from the North. 
Yeah. For six months already. They’re out of their homes. If you say it seriously and you mean it, “I cannot live with something,” then you have to be ready to do whatever is necessary. And I believe that would be right. But there is the war, the end of the war. The end of any war is an agreement. If you can reach an agreement, skipping the war, it’s better. But if you can, if you can, this is it. If that’s the only option, that’s the only option. And what we cannot live with is an empty north, empty of people. We cannot live with it.
Back to Gaza. What responsibility does Israel have to Gaza? A lot of people have talked about, “What does the day after in Gaza look like?” But if the Gaza war morphs into a northern front war, will there be a day after?
There’s always a day after. And the day after, as I see it, must, must lean on two very strong legs. The first one is a strong military force. We need it, unfortunately. But this is reality. The second is a series of agreements, with regional agreements first. We need to bring on board Egyptians, Jordanians, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, the United States, of course, and the European players. The stability would be achieved only by using those two legs, the agreement leg and the military force leg. Unfortunately, I’m saying that. One day, a Palestinian entity, which in 10 15, 20 years, will be a state, if they manage to do it. I don’t know, but at the beginning, definitely not. So when you ask me about the day after, who always comes, it’s in our hands, to design it, or at least to be a major part of the designers.

This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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