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The long shadow of Israel’s hostage crisis

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Oct 10, 2023 View in browser

By Calder McHugh

A man walks past an Israeli police station in Sderot after it was damaged during battles to dislodge Hamas militants who were stationed inside on Sunday. | Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

AGONIZING DILEMMA — Israel is now in its fourth day of carrying out sweeping airstrikes in Gaza, in retaliation for a massive surprise attack Saturday by Palestinian militants. As the government considers the scale and scope of its next response, Israel confronts an agonizing dilemma: how to deal with a hostage crisis that is inextricably linked to any prospect of a ground invasion.

Over 150 Israelis — according to initial assessments from a senior Israeli military official — have been taken captive by Hamas. And while right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to reduce parts of Gaza “into rubble” on Sunday, urging those living there to leave, any wide scale military operation could put those hostages at risk. Hamas has already promised to kill an Israeli hostage every time Israel bombs a Palestinian home without warning.

Israeli leadership now has to calculate the impact of potential execution videos on the nation’s resolve, and to what lengths they’ll go to get the captive civilians — many of whom are women and children — back. Further complicating the situation, President Joe Biden confirmed today that there are American citizens among those captured by Hamas, and said, “As president I have no higher priority than the safety of Americans being held hostage around the world.” Italian, Thai and Austrian citizens — some of whom had dual citizenship with Israel — have also reportedly been taken captive.

Since the bloody attacks began, death tolls have only mounted — at last count, in Israel more than 1,000 are dead and 2,600 others are wounded, while in Gaza at least 900 are dead and another 4,600 are wounded after Israeli air strikes. An ill considered response could result in those numbers skyrocketing.

To better understand how the situation might unfold and what’s going on in Israeli war rooms right now, POLITICO Nightly spoke with Christopher Costa, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who spent 25 years involved in counterintelligence and served as special assistant to the President and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from early 2017 to early 2018, focused in part on hostage response. Costa traveled to Israel many times in his career, meeting with the head of Mossad and Israel’s national security adviser, as well as with the President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do planning meetings about how to deal with the hostage crisis look like right now? 

What’s likely happening right now is Israel is trying to develop intelligence to identify the locations of where hostages are being held. So at the highest levels of the Israeli government, they’re laying out their intelligence and asking: Do we have anything that’s predictable, continuous and thorough on where the hostages are being held?

There is no plan for a rescue until you can identify where the hostages are. And I will say that this problem that the Israelis are dealing with is not like the Iranians holding Americans in one location in 1979. In that case, the United States was able to put together a rescue because all the hostages were held in one place. My conjecture is that’s not what Hamas would do — they would not consolidate hostages in one location. They would put them all over Gaza in different locations, probably underground.

How might threats to kill hostages affect the Israeli government’s decision-making? 

When you start showing videos, hypothetically, of Israelis being killed as a reprisal for an Israeli strike that didn’t meet some kind of criteria: that Hamas was unaware of the strike or they were unable to move people (regardless, they’re not going to be honest brokers), then there’s going to be more pressure on the government. In a similar way, there was pressure on the United States to act when ISIS started beheading Americans in orange jumpsuits. It’s an emotional issue and passions are going to be unleashed on all sides of this fight by Israelis, and as well as Palestinians. Unbridled passion.

I should say that there are gonna be some in the world that will celebrate Hamas as freedom fighters, and anybody that studies intelligence knows that that’s nonsensical. Hamas is a terrorist organization, by any definition. They have targeted and killed civilians. That is terrorism: targeting non combatants, civilians, children, women; they took hostages, they killed civilians. And Hamas has to be held accountable like a terrorist organization.

So I don’t know how this is going to end. But I do know that it poses the ultimate strategic dilemma for Israel. I will say, there is hope that there are brokers in the region that can start to have communications with Hamas, like the Qatari government — they have a relationship, they can start talking to Hamas. Those aren’t going to be direct Israeli talks. But they certainly have a track record of de-escalating problems in the region, and they brokered with Afghanistan. So there is some diplomatic outreach that could play out, but the Israelis have to consider diplomatic, intelligence, military rescue responses, and they have to worry about the long term and the calculus of Iran as well. All of that has to be factored into the decision making.

How long will it take the government to get a better count of the hostages?

It’s hard to say, it’s hard for me to even conjecture. I think Israel is doing the math. And that might sound insensitive. But they’re doing the math based on witnesses that survived and identifying the bodies and interviewing witnesses. So I would say, in the next couple weeks, if not quicker than that, there will be a better accounting.

Do you have the sense of what the coming days and weeks and months will look like on the ground?

I want to see the West Bank stay stable. I want to see the Palestinian Authority step up. I want to caution Israeli settlers in the West Bank to remain calm. Terrorists want to cause an overreaction. Passions have come unleashed. So what I want to see is a proportional response, that destroys Hamas leadership and rank and file to the extent they can, just like the U.S. went after al Qaeda. And yet, I want to see a limited response so that civilians, to the extent that they can be protected, can be protected. The problem is, Hamas will hide among civilians.

The worst case scenario is Iran and Syria get involved more directly, or Hezbollah in the north. That’s what I’m very concerned with. But I think there are possibilities in the next 30, 60, 90 days, where this can be de-escalated. A lot depends on what Iran does. A lot depends on what happens in the north. I think this is likely going to be a protracted conflict over months, not weeks. That’s only my calculus.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s authors at [email protected] or on X (formerly known as Twitter) at @calder_mchugh.


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What'd I Miss?

— Biden condemns ‘sheer evil’ of Hamas attack, urges Congress on aid for Israel: President Joe Biden today decried the brutal Hamas attack that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians as an act of “sheer evil,” and confirmed American hostages were among those taken in the assault. In a nod to the lengthy conflict ahead, he also appealed to Congress to support aid for the U.S. ally. The White House address marked the president’s second public response amid the eruption of violence in Israel, and came shortly after Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the administration’s support for the nation.

— Georgia prosecutors: Trump elector strategy was political — not legal — advice: Georgia prosecutors say a key Trump campaign legal adviser’s memos — which guided efforts to subvert the 2020 election despite former President Donald Trump’s defeat — cannot be shielded by attorney-client privilege because they were about politics, not law. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis argued today that the memos by Ken Chesebro, one of 18 defendants charged alongside Trump in a sprawling racketeering conspiracy related to the 2020 election, were not about a litigation strategy or legal advice, which would typically be protected by confidentiality rules. Rather, she contended, Chesebro had developed a strategy to derail the transfer of power from Trump to President Joe Biden by advocating efforts aimed at Congress, not the courts.

— Dems file lawsuit challenging just-enacted North Carolina voting law: Two top Democratic organizations filed a lawsuit today challenging a Republican-backed North Carolina election law moments after it went into effect. The lawsuit, filed by Democratic National Committee and North Carolina Democratic Party, tackles multiple aspects of Senate Bill 747. But the plaintiffs are specifically seeking preliminary relief on the bill’s provisions on same-day registration, which require additional photo ID and address verification requirements. Under those provisions, if voters opt to do same-day registration but do not have their submitted information verified on time, the ballot could be withdrawn under the new laws.

Nightly Road to 2024

NO MORE PULLED PUNCHES — Since the start of his presidential campaign, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has pulled his punches during speeches to voters, choosing not to attack the man leading him by 40 points in many national Republican primary polls.

But, the New York Times reports, in recent stump speeches in California, South Carolina, Florida and Iowa, DeSantis has started attacking former President Donald J. Trump more directly, drawing laughter and applause from his audiences. Previously, DeSantis had talked about Trump, who helped secure his political rise, only when prompted by questions from voters or during interviews with the news media. No longer.

STOP-TRUMP DONOR SUMMIT — The influential network of donors who joined forces to boost the 2012 presidential bid of Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, are meeting in Park City, Utah today, where they will hear from four of the GOP presidential candidates who are trying to prove to donors that they are best positioned to defeat Donald Trump, reports the Washington Post.

Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Mike Pence and Doug Burgum will all address those potential backers in closed-door sessions at the policy gathering known as the E2 Summit, which was launched by Romney before he became a U.S. senator from Utah and then helmed by Ryan, the former House Speaker, beginning in 2019.

REINING IN IRAN — Gov. Ron DeSantis today pushed new proposals in Florida to rein in Iran, reaffirming his commitment to Israel just days after Hamas terrorists launched one of the worst attacks on the Jewish homeland in decades, reports POLITICO.

The Florida governor, during a press conference in south Florida, called Iran a “clearinghouse for terrorist funding in the region” and asked the GOP-led Legislature for new Florida sanctions against Iran. He also asked lawmakers to block a broad array of other state or local investments in Iranian businesses in Florida, whether it be financial, construction, manufacturing and other sectors.


Supporters of Niger's ruling junta gather at the start of a protest to push back against foreign interference in Niamey, Niger in August. The junta took power after a July coup against Niger’s democratically elected government. | Sam Mednick/AP Photo

FORMAL OUSTING — The United States formally declared the ousting of Niger’s democratically elected president a coup d’etat today, more than two months after mutinous soldiers seized power, reports the Associated Press.

Senior administration officials told reporters that the U.S. was taking action after exhausting all avenues to preserve constitutional order in the West African nation, including urging the military leaders to restore civilian rule within four months in compliance with the constitution. The coup designation comes with the suspension of counterterrorism assistance and military training as well as the pausing of certain foreign assistance programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“As time has passed it’s become clear that the (junta) officials that we’ve been dealing with did not want to abide by these constitutional guidelines and in fact they’ve told us that they’ve chosen to repeal that constitution and are in the process of creating a new draft with an uncertain timeline,” said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

U.S. Ambassador to Niger Kathleen FitzGibbon remains in the country and has been in contact with the military junta, called the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland, or CNSP, to address U.S. staff protection and logistical needs.

Any resumption of suspended assistance will require action by the CNSP to usher in democratic rule in a quick and credible timeframe and the release of ousted President Mohamed Bazoum who’s been under house arrest with his wife and son since July, the administration officials said.


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Nightly Number


The number of witnesses in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C., criminal case — including a family member of the former president — who withheld information from special counsel Jack Smith’s team by citing attorney-client privilege, the special counsel revealed today. In a 14-page filing, Smith’s team indicated that those witnesses described maintaining legal confidences with Trump or his campaign that barred them from sharing certain testimony or documents. But Smith’s team says Trump himself may end up invalidating many of those claims if he chooses to argue during trial that his actions in 2020 were based on the advice of his lawyers.


MY TRADEMARK COLOR — Can you own a color? It turns out, you can, or at least a shade. In 2014, the artist Anish Kapoor bought exclusive rights to Vantablack, which at the time was the world’s blackest version of black, used by a company called Surrey NanoSystems. He’s not the only one — other artists Yves Klein and Elsa Schiaparelli have trademarked their own colors as well. Not everyone is happy with this ability, though, and the question of trademarking a color — as well as its fair use — has gone to court multiple times. Maia Mindel explains for the Substack Some Unpleasant Arithmetic how the legal fights have gone and why it’s such a controversial issue.

Parting Image

On this date in 1964: Japanese torchbearers of the Olympic flame relay team run through the rain on their way to the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Japan. The Olympic Flame was lit by Yoshinori Sakai who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day a nuclear weapon destroyed the city. He symbolized the rebirth of Japan after the Second World War. | AP Photo

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The long shadow of Israel’s hostage crisis


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