newsIsrael at War

PART I

Dermer to JNS: ‘We are sending Hamas into the dustbin of history’

In Part 1 of an exclusive interview, War Cabinet member and Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, former Ambassador to the United States and close confidante of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, discusses Israel’s war aims and diplomatic challenges.

Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer at the president's residence in Jerusalem, on Dec. 29, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer at the president's residence in Jerusalem, on Dec. 29, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer is a member of Israel’s small five-member war cabinet, a team that includes three high-ranking generals and Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Dermer himself never served in the Israel Defense Forces. Further, Dermer is an unelected official who was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to years of longstanding trust.

Dermer was a longtime senior adviser to the prime minister before being appointed as ambassador to the United States, where he served for eight years. He is widely considered to be among Israel’s most gifted diplomats and a master strategist. He was a key architect and negotiator of the 2020 Abraham Accords normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

Senior diplomats in other countries know that when they are speaking to Dermer, they are speaking with someone who has the prime minister’s full backing to execute matters on his behalf, and they understand that he knows the prime minister’s thinking better than anyone else. In many ways, Dermer is Israel’s unofficial vice premier.

As Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs, Dermer was tasked with three primary portfolios: to expand the regional circle of peace, including normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, the seat of Sunni Islam; to counter Iran and prevent the Shi’ite Islamic Republic from completing the development of illicit nuclear weapons; and to manage Israel’s diplomatic relationship with the United States. This in addition to any other projects he and the prime minister deem to be of major strategic importance.

Each of Dermer’s portfolios has played a major role in the lead-up to the Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel on Oct. 7 and its aftermath. As a minister, member of the war cabinet, and trusted adviser, Dermer is one of the key strategists navigating a complex war that includes multiple military and diplomatic fronts, and endless challenges. And despite all of the domestic and international criticism relentlessly hurled at Netanyahu, most Israelis are satisfied with the prime minister’s handling of the war and the pressures associated with it.

This week, JNS sat with Dermer at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, ahead of a stormy cabinet meeting, and conducted a wide-ranging, deep dive into the strategic challenges Israel is facing.

Here in Part I, Dermer discusses the military and diplomatic battlefronts Israel is facing. In Part II, Dermer addresses “the day after” the war in Gaza and an international push for Palestinian statehood.

JNS: As a minister in the government and a member of the war cabinet, what do you consider your responsibility to the people of Israel after the fundamental breakdowns on Oct. 7?

Dermer: Regarding Oct. 7, there are a lot of questions. We’re going to have to answer all those questions, me included as a minister in the government, and we’ll have time to discuss all those issues. Since Oct. 7, the IDF and our intelligence agencies have performed brilliantly. They have rallied, and what we have done in Gaza is unprecedented.

The promise of this country is not just that Jews return to their ancestral homeland, it’s that we will have the ability to defend ourselves here. And in a fundamental way, on Oct. 7, that promise was broken. And our job, at least as I see my job in the war cabinet, is restoring that promise. One thing that we cannot tolerate: that here in Israel, there can be a pogrom like we saw on Oct. 7.

That begins with utterly destroying the organization that launched that attack on Oct. 7. Hamas cannot survive this encounter as an organized military force in Gaza. Period. Now when the prime minister speaks about total victory, that’s what he’s talking about.

JNS: What exactly are the goals the war cabinet has established for the operation?

Our war aims are to: dismantling Hamas militarily; remove Hamas as a governing power in the Strip; remove any security threat to Israel; and bring the hostages home. And I’d say that we are achieving the war objectives pretty methodically.

We’re going to remove this organization from Gaza, and anybody who doesn’t understand that hasn’t walked around this country. We are sending Hamas in Gaza into the dustbin of history. The people of Israel expect that this organization will be removed, and that’s what we’re going to do.

We are well on our way to taking Hamas down because of the brilliant work of the IDF, the unity of the nation and a leadership—first and foremost, the prime minister—determined to achieve victory.

JNS: There has been a tremendous amount of public criticism internationally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why is that, and is it founded?

You hear a lot of criticism in the media of Netanyahu or Netanyahu’s coalition. But that is just a code word for criticism of Israel. This isn’t just about Netanyahu or a particular coalition.

When it comes to the policies of this war, militarily and diplomatically, the Netanyahu government represents the overwhelming majority of Israel. When it comes to opposing unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, dismantling Hamas, or finishing the job and winning the war, Netanyahu represents the overwhelming majority of the country.

JNS: At the beginning of the war, it appeared as if Israel and the United States stood shoulder to shoulder on the war aim of eliminating Hamas. Yet as the war has dragged on, disagreements have come to the forefront. How aligned is Israel with the Biden administration?

Dermer: We’ve had disagreements with the Biden administration during the course of the war, but by and large, we’ve been able to keep things together, which is very important.

Ten days into the war, President [Joe] Biden came, and President Biden is a Zionist in a deep sense. Yes, he’s a Zionist. People confuse that with saying, I agree with him on policy. I don’t agree with him on every policy. I certainly don’t agree with him on the policy of Iran. That’s an old fight. And there are other issues that maybe we’ll talk about a Palestinian state, but he’s a Zionist in a deep way. And he said things, he said one thing which he says all the time, if we didn’t have an Israel, we’d have to invent it.

And I think his visit actually was very important to ensure that we were only fighting a war on one front. He also sent a couple of aircraft carriers, which is as important as Air Force One in sending a message.

JNS: While the war is raging, the United States has enacted sanctions on Israeli residents in Judea and Samaria, who have never been convicted of crimes, over so-called “settler violence.” How big of an issue is this between Israel and the United States, and how is Israel responding?

Dermer: Now, of course, the United States is an ally, and with an ally, you always want to give the benefit of the doubt. The question is what is the extent of the argument? We need to clarify that.

Why did the United States pass this as an emergency executive order, during a war? We are deeply disappointed. There are a lot of problems with the sanctions, and, in particular, there are concerns about how broad the language is.

You can look at the issue being raised by the United States and Europeans now of settler violence.

What they are doing is turning a molehill into a mountain because they are looking for some kind of moral equivalence. In reality, what you have are Israelis who have been relentlessly attacked by Palestinian terrorists, and they just want to be sure that they are not going to be shot at when they are driving on a main road, like what happened recently near Ma’ale Adumim. You have Jews that are afraid to get into their cars in Judea and Samaria.

We want to make sure that we have clarification over the reasons behind these sanctions and the extent of the sanctions, how broad this is. We are entering that process now, and we’ll finish that process in a couple of weeks. Once we have clarification, we’ll figure out the best way to move forward.

JNS: The operation has taken over 150 days so far, and yet Hamas is still fighting. How do you assess the IDF’s efforts so far in terms of eliminating Hamas fighters on the battlefield?

Dermer: On the goal of disarming Hamas and eliminating it as a military force: First, it means getting rid of the battalions. They are not just a terror organization in Gaza. They’re a terror army.

We have destroyed 18 of their 24 organized battalions. When you defeat a battalion, it doesn’t mean that you’ve taken 100% off the field. It means that you have killed or injured more than half of each fighting force.

We’ve killed over 11,000 Hamas members inside Gaza; 1,300 were killed inside Israel on Oct. 7. And we’ve captured some 2,000 others. How many are wounded? Nobody really knows. But if we look at the ratios of wounded to killed in Gaza according to their own Ministry of Health statistics, there are more than 2:1 wounded, and if you apply that same ratio to Hamas, even if you take a 1:1 ratio, that would mean that we’ve either killed, captured or injured over 25,000, which is a majority of Hamas’s initial fighting force.

There are six battalions to go. And they will go down, whether there’s a temporary pause in the fight because we’re able to get a hostage deal or not, we will have to finish this job.

When people are talking about the day after in Gaza while leaving 5,000 Hamas fighters, they are having an academic discussion that has no basis in the reality on the ground. If we leave them there, then Hamas will just come back and take over the Gaza Strip in the future. If you leave 5,000 Hamas fighters, you’re basically guaranteeing that there’s going to be an insurgency and this war is going to go on for many, many years.         

JNS: So far throughout the military campaign, you have managed to rescue only three hostages, do you think the IDF can rescue more?

Dermer: As for the hostages, 112 have been freed, two in a daring rescue recently inside Rafah. One was rescued early on in the war, and over 100 were released as part of a temporary ceasefire and prisoner exchange. One-hundred and thirty-four hostages remain, although many of those may no longer be alive. At this point, it is understood that the most likely way to get back large numbers of hostages will be through some kind of a hostage deal.

JNS: For weeks, we have been hearing about an impending operation in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah. What is the status?

As the prime minister has said, once the campaign in Rafah starts, we will be weeks away, not months away, but weeks away from finishing the intensive portion of the military campaign. There are many voices in the international community telling us not to go into Rafah.

But if you leave the remaining battalions in Rafah, you lose the war. Because these battalions will reorganize and will spread their control over the rest of Gaza if they are not removed.

But before we start the Rafah campaign, we are going over different ways to move Gazan residents who are now in the southern part of Gaza, to other areas north of Rafah—not to the north, but north of Rafah—and how to get humanitarian assistance to them.

Right now, there are anywhere from 200 to 400 thousand Gazans in the north of Gaza. And there are supplies moving in that cover basic humanitarian needs: food, water and medicine.

The goals of the Rafah campaign are simple: First, we need to destroy the remaining battalions; we need to kill or capture the senior leadership of Hamas; and in doing so, we will essentially end the war.

JNS: A lot of pressure is being put on Israel to ensure humanitarian corridors and the delivery of humanitarian assistance, while there are many in Israel protesting the aid. Why is Israel complying with calls to provide aid?

Dermer: What we have been working to do, as the IDF presses ahead with the military campaign, is firstly to get civilians out of harm’s way and get humanitarian assistance to them. We’ve sent more than 9 million fliers, made over 95,000 calls. We’ve been successful in getting residents to move from the north to the south.

There is no other army that has ever done anything like this in terms of quantity.

Humanitarian aid is a very complicated political issue. I see the moral outrage within Israel. You have people in the country who are criticizing the government for sending any humanitarian assistance into Gaza as long as Hamas continues to hold Israeli hostages.

But there are laws of war. You simply cannot put a siege on a population. That’s an obligation that we have. We allow basic humanitarian items to go in.

The international community expects us to send in humanitarian assistance. It is one of the requirements that helps Israel retain international support. And we have maintained that support for over 150 days. That’s no small feat.

It’s not just a legal or strategic issue. It’s also a moral issue. Look at the demographics. More than half of the residents of Gaza are under 18. Half of those are under the age of 10. And while I understand why the issue is a sensitive one for many in Israel, it would be morally wrong and strategically foolish to withhold humanitarian assistance.

And we understand the difficulties in delivering humanitarian assistance. Now, as we are seeing, once you move humanitarian assistance into Gaza, you have issues of distribution and the questions of where the aid is going. And you have looting.

Hamas is trying to get their hands on as much of the supplies as possible. Believe me, the last pita in Gaza will go to Hamas.

JNS: What about Hamas’s rockets and sophisticated tunnel infrastructure?

Dermer: Hamas has fired somewhere around 13,000 rockets at Israel since Oct. 7. And the IDF has been methodically destroying storage facilities of unfired rockets, and more importantly, we have found and destroyed these rocket factories they have. We have destroyed over 90% of Hamas’s rocket capabilities, which is why you see fewer and fewer rockets being fired at Israel as the war moves along.

We are also going through the tunnel infrastructure systematically and methodically. Does it mean that you need to destroy every last kilometer of tunnels? Probably not. But the operation takes time. You need to go in there and destroy the tunnels systematically.

But we have already dramatically reduced the threat that Gaza poses to Israel, not just in the immediate short-term, but in the long-term as well.

JNS: How has the IDF done in terms of getting to the senior leadership of Hamas and ending their political rule?

Dermer: On the goal of ending Hamas’s political rule, we’re not there yet.

No force will emerge in Gaza unless they know that Hamas is finished, and they don’t know that today. I have news for you. Hamas doesn’t know that it’s finished. They think they still have a future in Gaza.

We haven’t taken out much of the senior political leadership. We haven’t gotten to the top leaders yet. I think we’ve come close, but we haven’t gotten them yet.

As such, we haven’t yet gotten to the point where Hamas recognizes that they will be completely defeated. Now they’re running out of space in Gaza. As we move down and deal with Rafah, we’ll have a greater chance of getting to the leadership.

JNS: How do you reach a point where you can declare an end to the war?

Dermer: We need a surrender strategy and that can include a strategy to exile Hamas terrorists abroad. I think that the best strategy is to have that, and I’ve supported that since the beginning. It accomplishes three things. It will end the war. It will enable us to get all of our hostages back in one shot because that will obviously be part of any deal. And it will enable a “day after” in Gaza.

Now, once the battalions are finished, if we get to the leadership, then there can be something on the table, where the leaders and remaining Hamas fighters can go to Qatar or go to Lebanon or go somewhere else.

We have to finish this job. Destroy the battalions, get to the leadership, get a surrender, a disarm, exile and get them out. Then I think we can have a different future.

Iran’s Terror Axis

JNS: Since the beginning of the war, Israel has been attacked relentlessly by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, and Israel has been striking back. So far, neither side has yet to escalate the situation into all-out war. Will Israel launch a military operation in Lebanon similar to the operation in Gaza?

Dermer: Since Oct. 7, we have operated with a posture of “active deterrence” against Hezbollah. I don’t think Hezbollah wants an all-out war, but we must always be prepared for one.

In Gaza, we are trying to change the security situation with a war. In the north, we are trying to change the security situation without a war. We prefer diplomacy, and the United States prefers diplomacy. But if we can’t change the security situation in the north diplomatically, we’ll have a confrontation.

What is unacceptable is going back to the situation that existed prior to Oct. 7, either in the south or in the north.

JNS: Most diplomats and media are characterizing the war as the latest and worst round of fighting in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Israel has been attacked relentlessly by Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—all terror proxies of Iran. Is this an Israeli-Iran conflict?

Dermer: People think that the current war is an Israeli-Palestinian war. But if you look at Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis, what you are really seeing is a war between Israel, which is backed by the U.S., and the Iranian axis. This is the first time you are seeing the axis of Iran fighting together as an axis.

Iran has always had a strategy of putting a noose around Israel’s neck. With terror proxies all around us. Even the fight against Hamas is connected to Iran—93% of Hamas’s military budget comes from Iran.

And this is what they are doing before they have nuclear weapons.

Israel’s top strategic priority is to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Also, there needs to be a strong response to the Houthis. But it is not only the proxies. Iran needs to feel that they are being punished directly as well.

Iran considers Israel to be a proxy of the United States, of the West. Iran sees Israel as the Little Satan fighting on behalf of America, the Big Satan.

That is why a victory for Israel is a victory for the United States.

Serving on the War Cabinet

JNS: Prime Minister Netanyahu tapped you to be Minister of Strategic Affairs even though you are not a member of the Likud party and you did not run for a seat in the Knesset. When the war started, the prime minister quickly tapped you to join Israel’s tiny war cabinet, while your colleagues there were all elected. How does that affect your working dynamic?

Dermer: My brother was a three-term mayor of Miami Beach. Our father was a two-term mayor of Miami Beach, and he passed away 40 years ago this year. And my brother calls me after I was sworn in and he says: Dad would be so proud of you: Think what you’ve accomplished without a single person voting for you.

And it is actually a great benefit for me because in the war cabinet, there are five of us actually, but I don’t have any constituency. So, I can just say exactly what I think on every issue. And the prime minister never tells me to say this or say that. He says, “Say exactly what you think.” And sometimes, I agree with one person in the war cabinet, and sometimes, I’m in agreement with the others. Sometimes, I agree with the director of the Mossad. Sometimes, I agree with the IDF chief of staff. Sometimes, we’re all in agreement, and it’s refreshing.

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