Intro. [Recording date: Monday, December 11, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is Monday, December 11th, 2023, and my guest is journalist and author, Matti Friedman. This is Matti's second appearance here in EconTalk. He was last year in June of 2022, talking about his wonderful book, Who By Fire. In that book, he tells the story of Leonard Cohen's trip to Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, where Cohen played numerous concerts for soldiers at the front and in the process revitalized his career. Matti, welcome back to EconTalk.
Matti Friedman: Thanks so much for having me.
Russ Roberts: Before we start, I want to mention to listeners, I am working to get some Palestinian voices on EconTalk, but it hasn't been easy. I've written so far to three people; none of them even responded. There could be a lot of reasons for that. I'm going to keep trying. I want you to know that I want to hear those voices and we'll continue to try to get them to the program.
Russ Roberts:Our topic for today with you, Matti, is the media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the word 'Gaza.' And the reason you're invited is that--for listeners--Matti worked in the Jerusalem Bureau of the Associated Press [AP] between 2006 and 2011. In 2014, he wrote a piece about that experience: 2014, almost 10 years ago. I encourage you to read it. We'll link to it.
My suspicion is that not much has changed in how the mainstream media--Associated Press, Reuters, the New York Times, the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation]--how they cover the Arab-Israeli conflict, in particular how they cover the current war with Hamas. And, I've invited Matti back to the program to talk about this issue, but I'm sure we'll get into other issues as well.
Now, let's start with how many reporters, as you did in your piece in 2014, are assigned to the, say, Jerusalem Bureau or the Arab-Israeli conflict, or Hamas, or Gaza, or the West Bank, relative to other parts of the world?
Matti Friedman: I guess I should say at the outset that my experiences at the AP come from my time on the desk in the Jerusalem Bureau, which is between 2006 and the very end of 2011. I'm not in the Bureau right now, so I don't have access to the current numbers, but I'm speaking broadly from my experience in those years and based in a general sense on those two essays that I wrote in the summer of 2014, one for Tablet and one for The Atlantic. When I was at the AP, we had about 40 full-time staffers covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. So, we're talking about Israel, a country of about nine million people today. In the West Bank, in Gaza, four million, five million. It depends on which numbers you believe. So, we're talking about a story that incorporates about 14 million people.
And, just to give listeners a point of comparison, the number of staff we had here, which was 40--and sometimes it was a bit more--that number was dramatically higher than the number of staff we had at that time covering India, which is a country of 1.3 billion people. It was more staff than we had in those years covering China. It was more staff than we had in those years covering all of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. So, that's 50-something countries. There were more staff, more news staffers here in Israel, than in all of those countries combined.
I think that quantifies something that most listeners will probably get anyway, which is that you hear a lot about Israel. Israel is a story that gets tremendous amount of news coverage even when very little is going on in many years over the past decade.
For example, the death toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was lower than the homicide rate in Indianapolis, but the story is covered often as if it were the most important story in the world. And that was certainly true when I was at the AP. The Jerusalem Bureau was the AP's biggest international bureau, and the AP is or says it is the largest news organization in the world. That claim is also made by Reuters, apparently, so, we'll take it with a grain of salt. But these are the big news organizations that are doing the heavy lifting of news coverage. And, by and large, this story has been considered, if not the most important story in the world, then certainly one of them.
Russ Roberts: Of course, today, it seems to be the most important story on Twitter, and probably in many, many other media outlets. Although, that may be due to my selective choice of who to follow on Twitter. But it's clearly the case that the world's eyes are on Israel and in particular on its behavior in Gaza.
Russ Roberts: I want you to start--let's talk about the nature of media. I think a lot of people--I certainly did until I thought about it more as an economist--when I thought about a major newspaper like the New York Times, or, say, when I lived in St. Louis, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I imagined that the reporters get together in the morning with the editors and they have a meeting and they say, 'What happened yesterday?' And they say, 'Well, this, this, and this'; and they write it up, and that's the paper.
But, of course, that's naive beyond words. The nature of a news organization is they decide what the news is to some extent, and there's some group think. So, they tend to follow each other. Is that accurate, my cynical view of the news business, in your experience?
Matti Friedman: I'm glad you mentioned Twitter, because I think it is important to remember that a discussion of mainstream news outlets or the mainstream media, if that term still applies--it always makes me feel like Rush Limbaugh when I say 'mainstream media'--but I think we know what we're talking about. We're talking about the big players in the traditional news industry--the New York Times, the BBC, AP, CNN [Cable News Network]--places like that. In 2023, this discussion can sound a bit archaic, because so many of those news outlets have been just gutted and so much discourse now takes place on social media.
So, we're talking about the big news organizations, which are I think still the places people go when they want to get an accurate picture of what's going on. But many people, certainly young people, are nowhere near those organizations anymore.
But, yes, the description that you gave is accurate. I mean, I think often people imagine that news is like an algorithm. So, you have events on planet earth that are run through a computer, and then what you get coming out on the other end is news coverage. And I think even journalists, like, pretend that our profession is a kind of science. So, you have biology, chemistry, journalism, physics--those are the hard sciences.
But what we're doing is a very human action of taking these very complicated events on planet earth and deciding how to describe them and deciding which events are important and which events are not important. There are many, many events on planet earth--most events on planet earth--which will never be in a Western newspaper. They'll never be of any interest to Western reporters. So, certain things are of interest to the Western mind and many things are not. There are many, many examples, and I gave some of them in those articles, just comparing the death toll--for example, the murders of women in Pakistan versus the number of people killed in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and why certain things are interesting and certain things are not. And often reporters I think are not honest with themselves about why certain things are interesting and certain things are not interesting.
I think that the Israel story and the just completely disproportionate amount of attention that is paid to it is a good opportunity to think about how the Western consciousness is skewed in many ways, or imperfect, and certainly not scientific.
So, when that news meeting happens, as you describe it in St. Louis or Chicago or New York, what comes to the table are a series of particular interests or a series of preconceived notions, an idea of what in the world is interesting and what isn't. And what you get at the end of that process is something called news, but I think it would be a mistake to read that as a realistic portrayal of events on planet earth.
Russ Roberts: Now, when you were covering Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab, or just Israel issues or Palestinian issues, you argue in your piece--again, written in 2014--that there was a particular narrative that was on the table at the Associated Press. Israel had a role to play in that narrative, and the Palestinians had a role to play in that narrative. What was that narrative? What was the story that underlay--or overlay maybe is a better phrase--the coverage that was chosen?
Matti Friedman: First of all, the story is presented as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When I was at the AP, every day we had to write a story, which was called in the internal parlance of the bureau 'Is/Pals'--Israelis and Palestinians. It was a story framed as a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; when in fact, most of Israel's wars have not been fought against Palestinians. Israel has fought wars unfortunately against Jordanians and Syrians and Iraqis and Lebanese. Israel's most important enemy for the past few decades has been Iran, and the Iranians are not Palestinians. So, clearly, there is a broader conflict going on here that isn't an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But a news story needs to be simple. A news story functions along the lines of a fairytale. You need a princess and a dragon to make a really good news story. That's what will engage a reader who is not really going to be able to deal with complicated stories that involve many dozens of actors.
So, a good example of a story that's been a blockbuster news story over the past year is the Russia-Ukraine story. Why does that story work? Of course, there are many conflicts going on in the world all the time, but the Russia-Ukraine story works in part because the combatants look like people in the West. That's one of the hidden drivers of Western interests. And, it also works because it's a princess/dragon story. You have plucky underdogs--the Ukrainians--fighting Darth Vader basically in the form of Vladimir Putin. So, that's a story that works.
So, a story about complicated factors in the Middle East, and Iranians, and Syrians, and Jordanians, and, you know, a hundred years' of very complicated history, that's not really going to be able to grab a reader, to simplify it as an Israeli-Palestinian story. And that's the story that people know. Even though, if you try to interpret events here using that format, they won't make sense. If you try to understand what's going on here as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it doesn't really add up. You need to understand it regionally. But that's the framing.
Within that framing, the story is about powerful Israelis and innocent Palestinians, or certainly powerless Palestinians. And the story is set up basically as a parable about power, where the Israelis are made to embody all of the ills of the West as liberal people see them.
And I would certainly place myself in the liberal camp, by the way, just for anyone [?inaudible 00:12:00]. Colonialism, militarism, racism, nationalism, all of these ills are embodied by Israel, and the Palestinians exist in a story largely as a foil. So, you're not going to read a whole lot about the internal drivers of Palestinian politics. When I was at the AP, we hardly paid any attention to the Palestinians as agents of their own fate or as actors in the story. They exist to be victims of the party that matters, which is Israel.
And in those stories I wrote in 2014, I actually started counting: when I realized the problem at the Bureau, I started counting the number of critical stories we were writing about Israeli society. And I can't remember now what the number was, but it was a very high number of just this kind of routine of kind of very aggressive criticism of all kinds of aspects of Israeli society. And the comparison to the number of critical stories we'd written about the Palestinians was absurd. I can't remember exactly what it was, but I think we wrote more critical stories in a one-month period about Israel than we had about the Palestinians in the preceding three or four years.
So, the party that's of interest here is Israel. And you can really see it in the current war as well. The coverage is of Israeli actions. There was a coverage, of course, of the initial Hamas attack that started the war. That has now worn off. And now the war is basically portrayed as being a war with one side: It's just Israel.
So, if there's going to be a ceasefire, Israel needs to be forced to accept a ceasefire. The description of the campaign in Gaza is described as Israeli actions, and the Palestinians are almost absent as actors in the story.
I think that's very much part of the way the story has been set up, and it's part of the reason that it is very hard to understand actual events if you're trying to do so with a news story.
Russ Roberts: So, you come to this story in 2014--or to the present--with your own set, of course, of biases, perspectives, frameworks. An AP editor criticized your piece. You responded. We'll put links up to that, also.
But on the surface, it seems a little hard to believe. Longtime listeners will recognize Arnold Kling's Three Languages of Politics. In that book, which I strongly recommend--it's a great book--he says, "The difference between Liberals," well, I'm going to call them Progressives, "[Progressives], conservatives, and libertarians is they use a different lens." So, Progressives see the world through the lens of the oppressor versus the oppressed.
And you've just described that quite well. The oppressor is powerful.
The oppressed is not only oppressed, but it's totally powerless: has no agency and no real responsibility taken by their situation. "The conservative sees the world as a fight between civilization and barbarism." There's nothing redeeming about the barbarians. They have no argument on their side. And it says the conservative, it's up to the civilized to defend themselves. And the libertarian perspective, which doesn't apply so well here, but just to finish it up, the taxonomy, the libertarian perspective is to see the world through the lens of coercion versus voluntary, the power of the state versus freedom for the individual.
If you take domestic American issues, this works quite well. Take the minimum wage. The employer is the oppressor, the worker is the oppressed, so we need the minimum wage to help them. The libertarian says the government has no right to interfere in personal freedom between workers and employees, and the conservative sees it as it's important to maintain--I can't even remember the conservative story now. I'm going to blank out on it, so we'll leave that out.
But, my point is that in this particular conflict, the libertarian perspective, although relevant because, in some dimensions, because of, say, the way that war often empowers the state in ways that are dangerous to individual freedom--putting that to the side, that's an internal issue here in Israel. It's an internal issue for sure in Gaza.
But, if we think about the Israeli-Gazan, Israeli-Hamas fight, the Progressive-Conservative lenses look very appropriate here. The Progressive lens--oppressor versus oppressed--Israel is strong, Palestinians and Hamas particular are powerless. October 7th was an exception, but now they're back as being oppressed. So, I wouldn't say October 7th is forgotten, but it is not usually a perspective that's spread into the current conversation about the war in general from the media.
Similarly, the Conservatives look at the current war and say: Hamas are barbarians. Look what they did on October 7th. Israel is at the front lines of the fight for civilization against radical Islam, and therefore, Israel is the good guy.
So, the Conservatives tend to side with Israel and are sympathetic to Israel. And I would add: tend not to read anything that suggests the Palestinians have a hard time.
So, the blind spot of the Conservative worldview is that, 'Well, sometimes barbarians have a moral case to be made. How big it is, what entitles them to do, that's a different question. But the Conservative tends to say, 'Look, this is pretty simple. I'm civilized. They're barbarians. We have to do anything it takes to take care of the problem.' The Progressive, on the other hand, says, 'Israel is totally powerful. They can do whatever they want.' And they don't look at any news stories either that discomfort their worldview, their lens.
They tend to focus on stories about, say, Israeli bombing in Gaza and the destruction and the deaths of civilians, the death of children, October 7th. Okay, that was then and maybe justified, even--many people, progressives would argue, because, what? can you blame them? They have nothing. They have no alternative.
So, again, the agentless, agency-less, oppressed against the oppressor in the Progressive view--in the Conservative view, the fight for civilization against the hordes at the gate, the barbarians.
And, the point I want to emphasize is that--before we go further--is that how biased our consumption of news is--especially in the world of social media, right?--where I can curate my newsfeed to totally satisfy my worldview and to get outraged at things that violate that worldview.
So, when I'm on Twitter and I'm pro-Israel--I tend to be Conservative on this issue--and I see things that make Israel look bad, I read them cringing. And I don't want to believe them.
Just to take an example, over the last few days, Israel took a bunch of people out in Gaza, stripped all men, stripped them down to their underwear. And according to the Israeli defenders of civilization, that was necessary because they sometimes wear suicide belts and suicide vests. And they're dangerous and they're armed. And so, therefore, that was a legitimate thing to do.
The Progressive side has treated this as a war crime. They write about it on Twitter as if it's humiliation beyond imagining and that these innocent people cowering in--no, they don't even have bomb shelters in Gaza because Hamas didn't build any for whatever--well, we know why they didn't. But they didn't.
And so, these poor civilians are cowering and now they've been humiliated in front of their wives and children. They've been forced to strip naked. And this is a horrible thing.
And both sides are outraged. This tends to be the nature of coverage.
But, to step back from that, to your world of 2014--2010, say--when you were working for the Associated Press, you wrote about it as if the only narrative that could be told in the AP newsroom was the Progressive narrative.
And you give the example of: if you propose writing a story on corruption on the part of Hamas, it just couldn't fly. And if you talked about how they were building a military infrastructure--you actually mentioned this, tragically. I mean, it's unbearable to read it today.--underneath a civilian infrastructure, you can't write about it. So, those stories never got written. Is that really true? And you can comment on what I said before, too, if you want.
Matti Friedman: I think that your analysis of the way things looked generally is unfortunately very true. People are in silos of information that reinforce what they believe and find the world outside their silo to be increasingly incomprehensible, if not infuriating. And it's very hard to imagine how we'll be able to run democratic societies in these circumstances. I mean, if you don't even agree who won an election, then it's going to be pretty hard to act together for the common good.
And we're all, I think, in that story: not just where Israel is concerned; it's a much bigger phenomenon. I think that if there's a flaw in those essays that I wrote in 2014 and I'm sure there are many, but I was too narrowly focused on Israel. I thought that the press was malfunctioning here. And I'd seen it intimately, and I described what I saw.
From 2023, it's very clear that this is part of a much broader malfunction where the Press moves from explanatory journalism largely into activism. Where the question about any news story is not 'Is it accurate or not?', but does it have the correct political conclusion or not? Will it move our readers in the right direction or not? Does it help the fight for justice or hurt the fight for justice? And, those are very different questions than a journalist would traditionally ask.
And those were the questions that I saw being asked.
One example that I gave in the first of those two essays, the one I wrote for Tablet, was that at the very end of 2008, reporters in our Bureau had information about a fairly dramatic peace offer that had been made by the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Ehud Olmert. He had offered the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who is still the Palestinian President, a Palestinian state that would have included Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, with a territorial swap or land that Israel was going to annex in the West Bank. An international arrangement for the old city of Jerusalem is actually quite a dramatic offer. And the Palestinians deemed it unacceptable.
And that had not been reported at the time. Now everyone knows it, but it had not been reported at the end of 2008, early 2009 when our reporters got wind of it. And they were told not to report it.
It seems quite hard to understand why that wouldn't be a major news story for an organization that is preoccupied primarily with covering what was then called the Peace Process. So, here you have an example of what the Israelis are willing to offer and what the Palestinians are or are not willing to accept. It's a very important story.
The problem with the story is that it would upset the princess-dragon dynamic. It would upset that oppressor-oppressed dynamic that we needed to maintain in order to maintain the integrity of our story. And the story had to be made to go away, and it was. It was.
One of the reporters who was involved in it, veteran newsman named Mark Levi[?sp.?], came forward after I wrote about this episode. I didn't use any names in those essays. And he came forward and identified himself as one of the reporters and confirmed what I wrote. And there was a lot of anger in the Bureau about it, because of course, that decision makes no journalistic sense. But it makes a lot of political sense if you understand that many journalists have come to see their job as fighting for justice, fighting for the oppressed. So, that means that in any given story, you identify who is the oppressor, who is the oppressed. And then you put the resources of your news bureau--which are considerable in terms of forming Western opinion--you put those resources at the disposal of the side that is right.
And, that explains a lot of news coverage that we're seeing. Not just from Israel: it explains a lot of news coverage that we saw in the 2016 election. It explains a lot of international coverage that we're seeing. In fact, it's very hard in 2023 to find those corners of the press that have not been contaminated by this kind of thinking, which is one reason that there's so much confusion about what's going on.
Russ Roberts: So, again, being here in Israel and being sympathetic to the Israeli story, I've been upset--as have been many of my fellow citizens--at how, say, the mainstream press covered the swap of hostages held in Gaza who had been kidnapped at gunpoint for prisoners in Israeli jails who had been convicted of trying to murder people in terrorist attacks. And, this was treated over and over again as two equal groups. And I don't mean that they equated them. They used the same terms: 'Captives were exchanged.' And I can document it: I started to write a piece. I wrote some of it on this. But this happens over and over again. When the ceasefire was broken, I hear from the Israeli side that Hamas broke the ceasefire. Hamas claims that Israel broke the ceasefire. All the news coverage was Israel broke the ceasefire.
Whether--again, I don't know exactly how accurate it was--but it always feels like, I think,to those of us on a side who care deeply about this, that it's our side that's getting the bad, unfair, inaccurate, slanted coverage.
And, to push back against your story--which again, I'm very sympathetic to--but to push back against it, I used to know people at National Public Radio pretty well, and they often get accused by pro-Israel supporters of being pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel. They would tell me that 'Yeah, and guess what? The Palestinians hate our coverage, too. They think it's pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian.'
And I think, for journalists, that for them was a redeeming feature: that it felt like they were doing their job. They made both sides angry.
And I'm sure the New York Times gets angry mail from Palestinians and angry articles in Twitter and other places that the New York Times is slanted toward Israel. Is this a case where it's just hard to see something from someone else's perspective, or do you really believe that, say, the Associated Press--that you had personal experience with--and I'm curious what you think today of those other news outlets, the New York Times, the BBC, Reuters, and others. Do you think that they are actively slanting the news?
Matti Friedman: I think that it's definitely possible to write an accurate news story, and you do it by accurately describing the motivations of the different sides. And, you can do that. It's hard. It's not easy, but you can take Hamas seriously as a political actor and describe what they want and accurately describe what the Israelis want. You can do that in one news story.
An example of how this worked or didn't work: there is a boilerplate for people in the news industry as information that you can put in an article without attribution. It's something that is just so evidently true that you can repeat it without attribution.
And, I personally wrote dozens, maybe hundreds of times that the Palestinian goal is for an independent state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem. That, when I was at the AP, was boilerplate, and you've probably seen that phrase many times. It's not true. The goal of the Palestinian national movement is and has always been to replace Israel with an Arab state.
Now, I'm not saying that's not legitimate. If I were a Palestinian, that might be what I would want. So, I'm not arguing the legitimacy of that goal. I'm just saying that is the goal.
So, if you believe that the boilerplate is true, then Israel's position makes very little sense. So, if you believe that Hamas is out to create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, it's kind of hard to understand what Israel's problem is.
But if you are accurately describing what the Palestinians want, then Israel's position also becomes easier to understand. And then you can point to a news story and say, 'Listen, you've accurately described Palestinian aspirations, and we're accurately describing Israeli aspirations, and they're at odds. They cannot be reconciled, but here we are.'
Instead, what reporters will do is they will slant a piece including writing outright fiction--and I've just given one example of fiction--in order to lead you to sympathize with the right side.
And the draw, the seduction of doing that is very real when you're a journalist. You want to put the power that you have at the disposal of the people that you like. And I think that there is definitely a way to write knowledgeable, accurate news copy. You might get criticized by all kinds of different people, but the reader will get a picture of what's going on. Often reporters will come back when they're criticized and say, 'Yes, but I'm getting shit from all the sides, right? No one's happy with my coverage.' That's not really a defense. The question is: Is your coverage accurate or not? Can I use your story? Can I take that New York Times story or that AP story and use it as a map with which I can navigate this place and this conflict? And the answer is: No.
So, the coverage isn't good. And that's the critique that I think is legitimate.
I don't think news coverage needs to be friendly to Israel. I think there's a lot to be criticized. I don't think news coverage has to be overly critical toward Palestinians. Of course not. I just think it has to describe reality and not fall into the trap of playing politics with the coverage.
There's a reader sitting in St. Louis, just sitting in Denver, trying to understand very complicated events that are far away. And your job as a journalist is to be knowledgeable and to describe the events as accurately as possible, and you leave politics to others. I think activism is important. I'm glad that there are activists. I think politics is important. I think that we need politicians. But, as soon as the journalists become activists, as soon as the journalists start playing politics, no one can understand anything that's going on. And that's the situation we're all in right now, unfortunately.
Russ Roberts: So, you said it's not true that the Palestinians want a two-state solution. Are you saying that about the average Palestinian? the Palestinian leadership? the leadership in the West Bank? the leadership in Gaza?
Of course, some people would say, similarly, the Israelis don't want a two-state solution. Now, you and I live here. We know many people who did. That group has gotten smaller over the last two months, but there's still many, many people--in Israel--who hope for an independent Palestinian state that lives alongside Israel in peace. They may be more pessimistic about the reality of that. They may concede it's a fantasy, at least today, but that's the hope. Do you think there are no people in the West Bank and Gaza who hold a similar view?
Matti Friedman: My experience as a journalist here for almost 30 years is that there are very few, and the people who do hold that view have almost no significance to political outcomes.
So you have Hamas, which has always been very honest about what they want. And that's one of the things I like about Hamas. They say what they want: they're very open about it. Often Westerners will refuse to hear what they're saying or disguise what they're saying. So, Hamas will say, 'God commands us to eradicate all of the Jews who live in the Islamic world.' And the Western observer will say, 'Well, what they really mean is they want an equitable two-state solution that will allow everyone to move forward.'
That's not what Hamas says. They're very open about what they say.
In the case of the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by Fatah, which is, I guess, moderately--more moderate--Palestinian faction, they have paid lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but demand that the state of Israel absorb millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948. Meaning that Israel would then become an Arab state after this process is carried out. And they've never given up that demand. So, it's a complete--
Russ Roberts: That's the 'right of return,' which is a phrase we'll be talking about probably in the future on the program. And this is the idea that the children and grandchildren, and some of the people themselves who lived in what are now the borders of Israel who lived there in 1948 when Israel became a state, should have the right to return to their homes and live in Israel on property that they either abandoned or were forced from in the 1948 War. They are refugees or the children or grandchildren of refugees. And I will talk, I hope, about this in a future episode.
But, my understanding is that in the education of many Palestinian children, maybe all of them, they're told that this is not only something to aspire to: it will happen. They will return to their homeland that their grandparents or parents left, or that they left in 1948, and will have the rights to live there again as they did then. And, as you point out, Israel is a democratic state. It is an ethno-democratic state. It has a Jewish focus. That Jewish focus would be difficult if Jews were a small minority.
Matti Friedman: Right. And all this is just a way to explain that there is no significant Palestinian constituency for the two-state solution.
And I think that, without even getting into whether the right of return is right or not--and again, I think if I were on the Palestinian side, I could be sympathetic to it. So, I'm not debating the legitimacy of the demand. I'm just saying it necessarily means there cannot be a two-state solution.
So, the two-state solution idea was one that really appealed to Israeli liberals like myself. If that solution were possible, I would sign the deal tonight and I would give up anything that would be necessary in order to achieve a peaceful outcome that would save my children and the children of my Muslim neighbors from eternal war. I would do basically anything if that scenario were possible.
So, it appeals to us--Israeli liberals. It appeals to many liberal people in the West. It appeals to the Clinton Administration, of course, and it has an ongoing appeal even into the Biden Administration. But, the Palestinians and their hundreds of millions of supporters in the Arab and Islamic worlds, they don't want it. That's not what they want.
And I think we can explain what they want and make this conflict much more comprehensible without committing any injustice against the Palestinians. I think, in fact, that misdescribing their aspirations does them an injustice. So, I think that there is a way to describe events that is accurate. And it's not going to make things very satisfying. It's not going to make any solution apparent. It's not going to lead people to be able to solve the puzzle of this conflict or this place, but it will make events here easier to understand.
October 7th is much easier to understand if you understand who the Palestinians are and what they want. The vast support in Palestinian society for the massacre of October 7th, that becomes easier to understand if you have an accurate picture of what that society is and what it's been through and what its aspirations are. I think if you came to October 7th on a diet of AP coverage or New York Times coverage or BBC coverage, you will have no idea why it happened.
But, for Israelis, although the shock of the level of violence was real, we lived through years of suicide bombings by Hamas and by other Palestinian factions in the 1990s and in the early aughts. We have an idea that this strain is very strong in Palestinian society and that the strain that desires peaceful compromise is weak. So, we exist in the real world while consumers of Western news coverage exist in a fantasy world that's been created for them by reporters. And you can really see people struggling with that now as they grapple with very complicated and very tragic events in Gaza since October 7th.
Russ Roberts: We'll get to that in a minute.
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to an important issue that you mentioned in 2014, which is depressingly timely. There's the ongoing coverage of day-to-day aspects of the war, but there've been a few dramatic moments. I just mentioned one a minute ago: the pictures of men in their underwear being held at gunpoint was an example. But, the beginning of the war, the most important example was the bombing of al-Ahli--I don't know how to pronounce it--hospital, which was immediately attributed to the Israelis. Over the next few days afterward, a number of organizations walked it back, said, 'Maybe it was not Israel.'
And then finally, many said, 'Actually, it was a Palestinian Islamic Jihad missile', another group in Gaza, which somehow operates alongside Hamas, which is another mysterious thing I think for most people: 'What do you mean?' And they have some of the hostages evidently, too.
So, Gaza is run by Hamas, but there's this other group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It looks like they shot the missile. It didn't destroy the hospital. It didn't kill 500 people. It ended up in a parking lot. It burned a few cars. It maybe killed a couple of people. But there were a number of observers who said, 'This is the most horrible morgue and death scene I've ever seen.' And of course, that wasn't true. It was a tragedy, of course, but it wasn't a tragedy caused by Israel. It was a tragedy caused by a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket.
So, that would be one example. The second example, which is much more important--it's ongoing--and that's the death toll. So, the Palestinian--the Gazan Health Ministry--which was of course the group that broke the hospital story and was clearly lying--is now the source for how many people that tragically have died in Gaza from the Israeli attack. I'm sure it's thousands of people. It is a terrible, terrible thing. Israel, you can debate how much effort they've taken to push people away from the bombings. You could argue they haven't done enough. You can argue there's no place to go. You can argue that the humanitarian aid isn't getting through to them, those people who are headed south.
But, Israel has made some effort to save civilian lives. How much is a debatable question, but for some reason--and I find this deeply mysterious and it's hard to understand--the death toll from the bombings is taken as factual, even though it's issued by the Gazan Health Ministry. And they're reported as fact to the single digits. And the number of women and children that are claimed to be killed out of the total is an enormous proportion. And it's treated as a fact. I'm skeptical of that. I'm not skeptical of the tragedy of it. It's a war. Horrible things happen in war. I'm skeptical of the accuracy of it.
Of course, 2014, in your piece, you talk about a very similar issue, and that I think is happening now, which is how the Hamas counts casualties. So, talk about either the hospital and this or both, whatever you feel like.
Matti Friedman: The issue with the Gaza Health Ministry was one that came up in those years. I was at the AP in 2008, which is the first round of serious violence between Israel and Hamas. Israel pulls out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005, turns it over to the Palestinians. In 2006, the Palestinians have an election in Gaza and the West Bank, and that election is won by Hamas. In 2007, Hamas, in a kind of violent coup, gets rid of the remnants of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and takes over Gaza. And then the following year, 2008, there's a real war, which involves rockets fired into Israel and everything where we've become used to over the past 15 years.
And that was really the first time this script played out. What is the script? Hamas attacks Israel, draws an Israeli response. Civilians in Gaza are killed in the Israeli response. The Western press films the civilian casualties under guidance from Hamas and under restrictions from Hamas about what you are and are not allowed to film. That coverage generates outrage in the West, and that outrage forces Israel to cease fire, with Hamas left standing.
And we've seen that script play out numerous times. So, it has happened enough times for Hamas to understand that it works: that you can count on international pressure to blunt the Israeli response in time to save Hamas and allow Hamas to live to fight another day.
And the strategy revolves around civilian casualties and having them covered by the Western press. So, the Western press has a role to play in the Hamas script.
And the central organ of the script, I would say, is the Gaza Health Ministry. What is the Gaza Health Ministry? It's an office of Hamas that puts out the casualty numbers. And the casualty numbers beginning in 2008 are the center of the story in a way that's quite unique. You don't really see it in the same way in the Russia-Ukraine story or in other war stories. You'll see the death toll as really the central point of the story, almost. So, you'll see the events of a given day described maybe some historical backgrounds of the war, and then you'll see a number of Israeli casualties and a number of Palestinian casualties. And those numbers will be greatly disparate.
And there are complicated reasons for that, of course, but it gives the reader a clear signal about who is right in the war, because the numbers are going to be very, very different.
And the Gaza Health Ministry is the source of the numbers. For a long time, the press was just attributing numbers to the Gaza Health Ministry as if it were a reliable source. And sometimes when I was at the AP, those numbers would actually be attributed to the UN [United Nations]. They would say it's a UN number, and the UN was just getting it from the Gaza Health Ministry. Meaning that Hamas was feeding these numbers to the press and it was really guiding the story.
And then what happens after the end of each round of violence is that Hamas eventually releases its own casualty numbers, because the casualty numbers you're getting are only civilians. So, what Hamas is trying to do is create a picture of only civilian death in Gaza.
So, Israel is fighting Hamas, and yet somehow only civilians are dying. And most of them are women and children, as you mentioned, and that's really visible in the numbers. The Israeli army says that the number of Hamas fatalities is around 5,000. I don't think they really know, but those are nowhere in the Gaza Health Ministry statistics.
And there's an incident that I relate in the story that I wrote for The Atlantic in 2014 from a Western cameraman who was in Gaza, who said, 'We used to stand outside Shifa Hospital'--that's the main hospital in Gaza City. 'When civilian casualties came in, we would film them. When Hamas casualties came in--when military casualties came in--there was a Hamas minder at the door to the hospital, and he would signal to us with his hand, and we'd turn off our cameras.' And that gives you the impression that only civilians are being killed.
Or, you'll see the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike, but you'll never see the rocket fire that precipitated the airstrike because you're not allowed to film that.
So, Hamas has become quite adept at creating this picture of Israeli aggression and civilian casualties. And it's doing so because it's proven to be effective in generating international pressure that ultimately forces Israel to stop.
And by the way, I'm not sure they're wrong. I'm not sure they're wrong. I mean, it might happen this time, too. Pressure is increasing on Israel as time goes by, as the press uses the Hamas numbers to ratchet up international pressure. It might happen that eventually the U.S. Administration will pull the plug on the Israeli military campaign and Hamas will still be in charge in Gaza. It's not impossible.
And I'll just say one more thing, so I'm not misconstrued. As you said, of course there is a civilian tragedy in Gaza. Many, many thousands of innocent people are dead in Gaza, and I wouldn't want to be seen in any way as minimizing that or ignoring it. It's true and horrific.
And it's the result of a war that Hamas started on October 7th, and it's a result of a battlefield that Hamas has constructed. They've constructed a military landscape that is indistinguishable from the civilian landscape.
Hamas fighters wear civilian clothes. Hamas tunnels are under civilian neighborhoods. Hamas headquarters are located under hospitals in some cases, and Hamas stored weapons under UN facilities and schools.
So, we're talking about a battlefield that Hamas has created, which necessarily leads to civilian casualties. As I said, that's part of the way Hamas wages war. And yet much of this is invisible in news coverage. So, you get this impression of Israeli aggression that targets civilians.
Russ Roberts: To give Hamas its due--which is not easy for me, but I'm going to do my best here--their slogan--and it's a slogan that has been displayed on the streets of London, I'm sure New York, I haven't literally seen it, but I've seen it in London in the photos: By Any Means Necessary. That justifies October 7th. It justifies putting your headquarters under a hospital. It justifies kidnapping women and children. It justifies lying about casualties, because hey, they don't have an Air Force. Their Air Force are a bunch of paragliders. Their navy is a pitiful set of rubber boats. They're living in an open air prison--according to the narrative of Gaza--that has been blockaded by Israel from since 2008 and the rise of Hamas. And what they are trying to do is to be free.
The only thing I would add that I think is important to add is the point you made, sort of in passing, which is: they're not fighting for peace. They're not fighting for a two-state solution. They're fighting to eradicate the Jewish state. Often the Jews who live here--again, it's not subtle--they had spokespeople day after, days after October 7th saying, 'We need to do this over and over again. We need to do it a million times if we can.'
So, that's the war we're in. Now, just in passing, I'm just curious--again, listeners don't know you. I know you a little bit. You are one of the most prominent critics of the Netanyahu Administration. You were a very prominent critic of the judicial reform. You certainly don't believe Israel should be immune from criticism. I'll just put in a plug for your book, Pumpkinflowers, which is about your personal experience in the Lebanese War, which is one of the best books on war I've ever read. It's short and powerful, and it's really a masterpiece. So, I encourage listeners to read it, Pumpkinflowers, one word.
So, you're not an extremist on the right. You, I think, have been an advocate for a two-state solution or at least hoping for one. And, I'm curious if you have any qualms about this war.
So, let me phrase it differently. I've heard many people, civilized people--and one of the challenges of being a civilized person fighting barbarians is that it tends to turn you into a barbarian. Many people have compared this war to World War II, the fight against the Nazis or the fight against Imperial Japan.
Well, the Allies in World War II, there was nothing out of bounds. The Allies leveled cities. They carpet bombed. They dropped an atomic bomb on two Japanese cities--and they did it without guilt by the way. They acted as barbarians in the name of civilization, and they killed many, many innocent people who weren't remotely supportive of the Japanese imperial effort or the Nazis. The Nazis had some democratic pretense. They were not even elected by a majority. Neither was Hamas. I do not like the Israeli viewpoint that says, 'Well, they voted for Hamas. So, this is payback. This is what you get.' That does not follow ethically for me at all.
And yet, if you live here in Israel, you do feel, often, that we have a right to be here. We have plenty to apologize for, but we have a right to be here.
So, does that limit what we do in Gaza at all? Does it mean we can kill as many civilians as is necessary to root out Hamas? Again, we could debate--historians maybe will in the future--as to how much care Israel took in avoiding civilian casualties. And I would say that Israel has done a very bad job of making this case. They've published a lot of pictures of rubble and failed to point out, which, what I think is correct is that a lot of that rubble was created without people in it. It's true that Israel has destroyed a good chunk of Northern Gaza, but it hasn't killed the people in Northern Gaza. It's killed some and that's horrible, but we don't know how many. And of the counts that are given, we don't know how many of those are actually Hamas fighters versus truly innocent civilians.
So, do you have thoughts on that? Do you think there's any moral calculus that Israel should be held to in this point in the fight?
Matti Friedman: Of course I do. And Israel's army--and I know this from the inside, it's not an army that never makes mistakes--but it's an army that has no interest in killing civilians. I mean, even if we put the moral questions aside, and I think the moral questions are very much alive for the people in the control rooms who are airing out the targeted airstrikes.
But, even if we set those considerations aside, civilian casualties work against Israeli interests, because they increase outrage that then limits our freedom of action.
So, I think that there are certainly moral considerations here. The laws of war are important. You can't just bomb civilians for no reason. You can't carpet-bomb Dresden in 2023.
But you're facing an organization that is indistinguishable from the civilian landscape in which it operates. So, when Israel is attacked by Hamas, Israel has two options. It can either fight Hamas or not fight Hamas. If you choose to fight Hamas--as of course we must--this is what it looks like. This is what it looks like. This is a group that has, according to various reports I've seen, 500 kilometers of tunnels underneath the civilian landscape of Gaza. So, how are you supposed to kill the Hamas guys in those tunnels? We've all seen that the tunnels under Shifa Hospital, and we've seen Hamas fighters wearing civilian clothes operating in civilian areas. And if you are going to fight them--and they're forcing you to fight them--then this is what it looks like. And it's awful.
The pictures coming out of Gaza are incredibly difficult to watch, and many of those people are innocent. And even if a majority of Palestinians did vote for Hamas in 2006 and even if you are a 12-year-old whose parents voted for Hamas, that doesn't mean that your life is forfeit in any way.
These are my neighbors. I mean, this is all going on about an hour and a half from where I'm sitting and an hour and a half from where you, too, are sitting, Russ. So, there's no joy in any of this. It's absolutely horrific. But this is the battlefield that Hamas has built.
Israel spent 15 years trying not to do what it is doing now. We've had repeated rounds of violence in Gaza, and Israel has always hoped that each round was the last round. It has hoped that if we just put enough technological defense in place, we'll be able to leave Hamas and Gaza and go about our lives. So, we have this missile system called Iron Dome, which has shot down thousands of rockets coming in from Gaza. And we have this high-tech fence that was supposed to protect the communities in Southern Israel. We had this whole defense array, which was aimed in many ways, I think, at preventing what we're now seeing--preventing an all-out war where the Israeli army has to go into Gaza and eradicate Hamas tunnel by tunnel.
And the price for Israelis is very high. I mean, you're going to see a lot more coverage of the casualties in Gaza, which are of course much higher numerically than casualties in Israel, but we're losing two or three soldiers a day. I just heard that two soldiers from my own reserve brigade were killed, a guy who's 36 and a guy who's 42. And this is every day in Israel now.
So, if Israel truly wanted to eradicate the threat of Hamas and did not care about civilians, Israel could do that in one day. There's a way to eradicate Hamas in Gaza, and you could do it in 24 hours. The fact that Israel isn't doing that, I think, shows that they're looking for a way, the army is looking for a way to eradicate a threat that for us is unbearable. We can't allow something like October 7th to happen again. We're trying to eradicate that threat while doing what we can do to kill as few civilians as possible.
I think there will be a debate after the war about whether each decision was the right one. But from what I know from inside the army, from what I know about the legal advisors who sign off on airstrikes, and from what I know about the amount of effort that was put into finding humanitarian safe zones, the element of surprise that was sacrificed in many cases by warning civilians that the army is about to come in, from what I know, I can say simultaneously that the images are horrific and unbearable. And I think that as Israelis, our conscience can be clearer.
Russ Roberts: Some people have suggested--not many--well, let me cover the whole range of opinion here in a crude thumbnail. You and I don't want to kill civilians. There might be some Israelis who want Gaza to be resettled as Israeli settlements. There were settlements there in 2005: when Israel withdrew from there, there were Israeli settlements. They were unable--the Israeli army was tired of trying to protect them and taking casualties from terrorists. And in 2005, Israel vacated Gaza--as you said--vacated those settlements by force, because the people who lived there did not want to leave; and left behind an infrastructure of everything that had been built there in hopes of a better world.
But, there are people in our communities who don't want that. They have no sympathy for the Palestinians. They have no sympathy for Gaza. Not only do they have no sympathy for Hamas, they have no sympathy for the 12-year-old whose parents didn't vote for Hamas in 2005. I think there are such people. But, my experience is that they are few and far between, on what would be called the Extremist Right, here.
At the Extremist Left here, which has gotten much smaller since October 7th, there are people who have told me they think we should have done nothing. In response to October 7th because of this brutality that we're inflicting on innocent civilians, because of the deaths of Israeli soldiers, because of the trauma of war that is not measured in death counts but is real, that is absorbed by both the residents of Gaza and these Israeli army of 36-year-olds but also 20-year-olds, we should have done nothing. We should have improved our intelligence, improved our surveillance, improved our border, created a buffer zone of a kilometer or two so we'd have had more time to react if there was a border incursion. You, in passing--you[?] had a little phrase--I don't remember how you worded that: We didn't have a choice. These people say we did have a choice and we do have a choice. We could still, and even now, we could stop. We could try to get the remaining hostages out through negotiation.
Why do you think we had to respond? And one more thing: they would also add that by responding, we're just continuing this cycle that we've seen before. We'll create more Israel-hatred in--and Jew-hatred--in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank and elsewhere. And, not only will we not achieve our goals, we will make them even less successful than before we started.
Matti Friedman: There's always a seduction in surrender. And I think, can we remember Chamberlain and how he was applauded when he came back with his greats[?] piece of paper and waved it around? There's always that idea that if we just do nothing, it will go away. Of course, that's completely incorrect. If you do nothing, then this will happen again.
As you pointed out, the leaders of Hamas have openly said since October 7th that they'll do it again as soon as they have a chance. So, of course, Israel has no choice. This is not a threat that we can live with. If Hamas is left in power in Gaza, not only can more than 100,000 Israelis never return to their homes near the border, but in the long term, the State of Israel will not be able to exist.
If you accept an attack like this on your people, then you have no legitimacy as a state. You're not providing your citizens with protection. Our lives are forfeit and at the mercy of religious fanatics who are very open about their intentions.
So, sometimes you're forced to fight, and it's awful. Of course, I understand those who would rather stick their head in the sand and hope that it'll never happen again if we just ignore it. But that's not true.
I'm very proud of the society actually for rallying in the way that it has. This is a society with very disparate views. People don't agree on a lot of stuff. And as you mentioned, I've been very critical of this government and I'm more on the Left politically and have very little in common with some of the people who are in the current government. But, I'm very proud of the volunteerism of Israeli society. When the war broke out, more people showed up for Reserve Duty than the army had weapons for. So, many people reported to serve that the army didn't have guns for everyone. There's been this incredible outpouring in volunteerism and housing the evacuees. We have people evacuated from the communities in the South and from the communities on the Northern border--which we often forget, but almost everyone along the Northern border was evacuated because we're worried that Hezbollah can do what Hamas just did in Gaza.
There's this volunteerism to replace the workers who did much of the agricultural labor in Israel's South. Many of the laborers were Thai, and some of those laborers were murdered by Hamas. Others were kidnapped by Hamas, and the rest of them quite understandably ran away. So, no one is around to pick the crops, and thousands of Israelis are down in the South every day picking crops. I was just down there yesterday as a matter of fact, doing that myself. There is an incredible solidarity and incredible clarity of purpose right now in Israel that I'm very proud of.
So, those voices do exist. I think that position is ludicrous. And there are also positions on the Far Right that you mentioned, which I find abhorrent--the position that says there are no innocent civilians in Gaza or the idea that we need to reinsert Israeli settlers into Gaza. These are not tenable positions in my opinion
But the core of Israeli society understands that we've just seen something horrific. We've just seen really a barbarism on a medieval scale. And the answer is, unfortunately, war against the people who committed this act and say they'll do it again. That's what we're doing.
It's incredibly painful for people going at 4:00 to make a condolence call to a family that just lost their son. I've had to take my 16-year-old sons to two funerals at the National Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. We know a young man who is a hostage in Gaza, who was badly wounded at that famous--that infamous--party in the South and is now a hostage in Gaza. My children know another young Israeli who was killed at the same party.
So, we're all kind of caught up in this absolutely horrific event. But we're responding in a way that I think is admirable. And it's going to require a lot of tenacity from us in the next couple months as it continues. But, I certainly don't think that covering our eyes and pretending that we can make it go away is the right thing to do.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to take a change tack a little bit in a minute, but before we do, I want to make clear, when we talked earlier about the casualties and the fact that Hamas counts all casualties as civilian casualties, whether they're Hamas fighters or not, you actually documented in your story that the person--maybe it was you--who wanted to report that, was told, 'You can't.' It was censored because Hamas didn't want that revealed. Is that accurate?
Matti Friedman: In late 2008, I was an editor on the AP desk in Jerusalem and I was in charge of writing news stories from Jerusalem using news material that was coming in from Gaza. So, this is during that first round of violence between Israel and Hamas.
At the time, we had an excellent reporter in Gaza, a Palestinian reporter. By the way, the heavy lifting of the news industry in Gaza is done by Palestinians from Gaza. I think that's important to understand. Today, it's done almost exclusively by Palestinians from Gaza, meaning that the people reporting for Western news outlets are people who live under Hamas rule and cannot cross Hamas because it might cost them their life. And I think that's something that people don't necessarily get, but which is, of course, is very important to know.
But this is 15 years ago and we didn't quite understand that yet. So, in the morning, the reporter told us that Hamas fighters were dressed in civilian clothes and were being counted as civilians in the death toll, which is of course a crucial fact if we're using the death toll as the central fact of the story; and then called back a few hours later and told me I had to remove that detail from the story. And it was clear that he'd been spoken to: that he'd crossed some line that had been established by the new Hamas authorities in Gaza. And of course, I removed the detail from the story, and I wasn't going to endanger a reporter for any reason.
And I suggested to the person running the news desk that we append an editor's note at the bottom of the story that informed our readers that we were now conforming with Hamas censorship: that we couldn't tell them the whole story, because reporters were being censored by Hamas. And I was overruled.
It's worth knowing that whenever the Israeli military censor touches a story, we would note that the story had been looked at by a censor, even if the censor didn't make any changes. Often stories that relate to Israel's nuclear program have to go through the censor. We would note in a story whenever that happened.
And yet since that story that I was mentioning from the end of 2008, AP never made clear that they were conforming with Hamas censorship. And that's true of all of the big Western news organizations that have permanent operations in Gaza. They've all made accommodations with Hamas. They're all reporting and not reporting certain things, and they're not telling you what those things are. And I think that is maybe the greatest ethical failing of the press in Gaza, among many.
Russ Roberts: So, you mentioned that you've gone with your children to funerals. Of course, I've been to funerals as well. I live in Jerusalem. I mentioned, I think, in Tel Aviv--in a previous episode or one that's coming, I don't remember which it is--the existence of the hostages who were kidnapped is everywhere. You can't get away from it. It's a very heavy time here in Israel. And I'm sure it's very heavy in Gaza too, but it's certainly very heavy here. There is no joy. There's a lot of sadness, and of course, we worry it's going to get worse.
I'm curious: for you, especially you as a critic of the government that's still in power and still doing many, many things that I'm sure you and I disagree with outside of Gaza, how has this changed you in your view of what it's like to live here, of your resolve to live here, your political outlook, your hopes for the future? Talk about that.
Matti Friedman: The only positive thing we can say about the current government is that the makeup of the government was diluted somewhat by the addition of a Centrist Party, Benny Gantz's party, that joined the government when the war started. So, at least I feel that now we have a few more responsible adults in the room where the big decisions are being made. But I'm certainly hoping for an election as soon as possible. I'm hoping for new Israeli leadership that is reasonable and rational and has no representation of the extreme right. And I hope we see that as soon as possible.
I think, in terms of what has changed, I think that like most Israelis, I was happy that we were playing defense on the Gaza border. I didn't want to see a major war in Gaza. I didn't think we had anything to gain by one. I thought we could put up with these periodic rocket barrages and just ignore them--ignore them and go back to doing what Israelis do, which is business and art and living like crazy. I thought that that was the right attitude. I didn't want to get drawn into this kind of black Middle Eastern hole by the forces of chaos and fundamentalism.
And I think that was wrong. I think that if you ignore a threat like this, eventually it will blow up in your face. Hamas was firing rocket barrages at us from 2008, in part because we had the tech to blunt those attacks. Because we had Iron Dome, we could lie to ourselves and tell us that this wasn't really happening.
If your neighbor is firing thousands of rockets at you, he's trying to tell you something, and you need to take care of it immediately and not wait 10 years for them to build up a massive military force, break through the fence, and murder a thousand civilians, and murder babies and rape women and kidnap people and murder almost 400 people at a music festival. In retrospect, we were wrong to ignore the threat. Had Israel taken an aggressive military posture after 2008, I think we could have avoided what is ultimately a higher number of casualties, both military casualties and civilian casualties in Gaza. I think we needed to act quickly and aggressively as soon as the nature of the threat became clear.
I think that's something that we've now learned and that has repercussions for what we're going to see in the future. I don't think this war will necessarily end in the way that previous wars ended. There might not be a ceasefire. The idea that you just stop fighting and let your enemy re-arm, I'm not sure that that is possible or wise. So, like most Israelis and I think like many people abroad who have had their eyes opened and saw what happened on October 7th, we saw something horrific. I mean, we saw an evil that was not supposed to exist in the world of the 21st century, an evil that we prefer to ignore. But you can't ignore it, because they filmed it with GoPros and put it online. So, the risks are clear. What's at stake is clear, and I don't think we can allow ourselves to be fooled again.
Russ Roberts: Do you have any optimism for the day after? Because, some people say, 'Well, eradicate Hamas. Hamas is an idea. You can't eradicate an idea.' No, but you can stop the people who are the violent proponents of that idea from running an area. I think that potentially will happen. I think we will kill and--we'll kill many of the perpetrators of the massacre of October 7th, including the people behind it, the brains behind it. But, what's the hope for Gaza 2.0? What could possibly come along?
Matti Friedman: An unexpected source of hope over the past two months has been Germany. I'm not sure if you caught the speech by the Vice Chancellor--
Russ Roberts: I did--
Matti Friedman: of Germany, which was maybe the most remarkable speech to come out of this entire period, including speeches from Israeli leaders, which have been largely lackluster and lacking in any vision. If you find that speech--and you can find it online--you'll see an incredible enunciation of not just support for Israel, but Western values and what they mean, and the commitment of the German state to the survival of the Jewish people and to the survival of the state of Israel. And if we rewind 80 years ago, it's impossible to believe it's Germany. And if that's possible, then a lot of things are possible.
Russ Roberts: And, they've also frozen their funding of the UN refugee organization, UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East]. And they've lit a Chanukah menorah at the Brandenburg Gate, the largest menorah in Egypt, with their Prime Minister. It's a shocking change. It gives me hope, not just because it's Germany, but because they've changed. It's not that there is a nation that feels that way. It's that it's the nation that was so hostile to the Jews has become so supportive is comforting. Not, again, just because it's pleasant, but because it suggests that change is possible.
Matti Friedman: Right. Nazism was an idea, and it was a very powerful idea that had a lot of support in Germany; and it was vanquished.
I think we all need to be careful with historical parallels. It's not going to work the same way. The situation is not the same. But change is possible. There are points of light elsewhere in the Middle East, and we saw them unfold in the past couple of years with these new accommodation, which we call the Abraham Accords. There are places in the Middle East which--they're not democratic, but they are forward-looking. They are able to provide something for their citizens.
Gaza has a great location. It sits on the Mediterranean Coast. It could potentially be a hub for material moving from Egypt, from Israel, from elsewhere in the Middle East. Under the right governance, there's a lot of potential for Gaza. I think that many Israelis were hoping that that would be the scenario that unfolded after the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. I know that I certainly was. I'd love to see Gaza look like Singapore or like Dubai. And, that seems very distant, unfortunately, from 2023, but it's certainly not impossible. Ultimately, what happens in Gaza and what happens in the West Bank and what happens with the Palestinians is up to the Palestinians. And I think that often Israel is asked what the solution is or what the path forward is. Israel is not going to be able to decide for the Palestinians what the path forward is.
If the Palestinians come across our border and murder 1,200 people, then we're going to be forced to respond. But, the future of Gaza is up to the people in Gaza, and if they choose Hamas as the future, then this is what it looks like. You can turn on your TV and see what that future looks like. And if they want to have a different future--and I hope that they will--I think that there's a lot of potential. I hope it doesn't take 80 years, as in the case of Germany, but I think that history is flexible. And I think that the fact that we've seen one thing up until now doesn't mean that that is necessarily the thing that we'll see going forward.
At my most positive moments, I see this war as a turning point, right? The forces of darkness made themselves apparent, most horrific way possible. An Israeli victory here might turn the direction, not just in Gaza but in the Middle East as a whole, away from the forces of Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranian proxies that seek to drag us all into a vortex of violence, but more in the direction of the UAE [United Arab Emirates] or of other states in the Gulf that have identified a different kind of future.
We'll see. There are only six million Israeli Jews. There are only nine million Israelis. The Arab world is 300 million people. The Islamic world is one and a half billion people, maybe two billion people. So, the effect that the Jewish state of Israel is going to be able to have on the ultimate outcome in the Middle East is very limited.
If you think that Israel is the most important story in the world--which is how it's covered, of course--when you think that Israeli actions are very significant and that Israel can bring peace to the Middle East or not bring peace to the Middle East--we're a tiny, tiny people in one corner of the region, and the ultimate outcome in this part of the world unfortunately is not up to us.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Matti Friedman. Matti, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Matti Friedman: Thanks again, Russ.