Major General (ret.) Giora Eiland, former IDF planning and operations chief and ex-head of the National Security Council (Courtesy)
Main image: Major General (ret.) Giora Eiland, former IDF planning and operations chief and ex-head of the National Security Council (Courtesy)
InterviewDon't hit inside Iran; offer to stop the war for all hostages

A top ex-general’s radical strategy for tackling Iran, saving the hostages, calming the north

Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser and ex-IDF operations chief, has been bitterly critical of Israel’s response to October 7; here he sets out an alternative approach

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image: Major General (ret.) Giora Eiland, former IDF planning and operations chief and ex-head of the National Security Council (Courtesy)

One day about two decades ago, when we found ourselves waiting for a delayed flight at an airport in Washington, DC, I got talking with Giora Eiland, a former IDF planning and operations chief who headed the National Security Council under prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Among other things, we discussed a proposal he had for dealing with the densely populated Gaza Strip — a plan for an expanded Gaza, created in part by Egypt allocating a very small proportion of the vast Sinai Peninsula. Eiland sketched me a map of the envisaged territorial adjustments, with lines showing tunnels and pipelines and trade routes emerging from the Gulf and crossing Israel and Gaza to the sea — a blueprint for regional cooperation.

Rather atypically, I framed it, and hung it on a wall at home. It’s still there now. But the lines have faded to near-invisibility. Quite the metaphor for the descent into our current horrific reality — as triggered by Hamas’s October 7 invasion, a stalled war in Gaza, Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone onslaught, and the acute dilemma now facing an Israeli government, hamstrung by internal mistrust, regarding whether, when and how to hit back at the Islamic Republic.

Should Israel hold its fire, and risk a deepened perception of weakness? Should Israel strike back directly at Iran, and risk an escalation into regional or even world war? What are the options in between? How should the United States’ pleas for wisdom and strategic thinking translate into action?

Over the past six months, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Eiland has been one of the prominent ex-generals dispensing advice from Israel’s television studios. If that fading map exemplified an optimistic potential path ahead all those years ago, the early post-October 7 days saw Eiland bleakly castigating the government and defense establishment for what he believed was a fundamentally misguided war strategy. Israel’s leaders, he declared, had failed to recognize Hamas’s Gaza as a full-on terror state, with its citizens largely complicit, and thus the reliance on military pressure alone to destroy Hamas and get back the hostages was destined for failure.

In a telephone interview on Monday night, Eiland set out his recommended — and extremely dramatic — approach for Gaza, and for dealing with the weekend’s Iran assault, and much more besides. He spoke in his characteristic rapid-fire Hebrew. This translated transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Times of Israel: Let’s start with the situation in Gaza now.

Giora Eiland: The cabinet’s decision on October 7 was simple: to win, Israel must impose military pressure on Hamas, only military pressure. There was a belief, or maybe just a slogan: Only military pressure will enable us to win the war and get back the hostages. It hasn’t worked.

Why not? Partly because Hamas built a highly effective war machine, much of which was relatively invulnerable, including the tunnels. Hamas also has the capacity to continue guerrilla-style fighting. We were on a hard path from the start, not a good path.

And we gave up on two areas where Hamas was vulnerable.

People walk amid the rubble of buildings destroyed during the Israeli bombardment of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 16, 2024.,(Photo by AFP)

First, we gave up from the start on organizing or being open to alternative control of Gaza. That was a strategic mistake. The world asked what the post-Hamas plan was, and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu wouldn’t say.

What we should have said was: No Hamas on the one hand, and no Israeli occupation on the other. Anything else is negotiable, and we are ready to discuss this with all global and Arab potential players, including the Palestinian Authority. And to work with them on an interim administration. Five months ago, we could also have discussed the idea of the PA, perhaps with Egyptian forces, overseeing food and humanitarian aid distribution in northern Gaza.

All of that would have created real pressure on [Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar.

The Israeli story was, Hamas is like ISIS, and ISIS is like Hamas. No! That’s not the case

The second mistake regards the narrative [of the Israel-Hamas war]. The Israeli story was, Hamas is like ISIS, and ISIS is like Hamas. No! That’s not the case.

ISIS was a bunch of crazies from Baghdad who, unopposed, gained control of western Iraq and those who lived there. But it didn’t represent the people, not in Mosul or elsewhere.

Gaza more resembles 1930s Germany, where an extremist party won elections, with the support of most of the people, and quickly unified the military and civil government into one entity.

In Gaza, with the support of perhaps 80% of the residents, Hamas has done much the same thing. It’s a de facto state, with all the characteristics of a state.

What happened on October 7 is that the State of Gaza went to war against the State of Israel. State against state. Now, the state of Gaza does have vulnerabilities. It doesn’t have sufficient fuel, food and water of its own. You can impose a legitimate boycott on that state until the state returns all of your hostages. Humanitarian for humanitarian.

The leader of the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, waves as he arrives for a meeting with the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister and other officials in Gaza City on October 2, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Had we done those two things — allow an alternative leadership to take shape and impose an economic blockade — we’d be in a far better pace.

The reliance on military pressure alone not only fails, but also has engendered huge international criticism. There’s vast devastation, large numbers of civilian deaths. And Israel is seen as solely responsible.

So what should Israel be doing now?

Hamas has officially rejected the compromise for a partial hostage deal, as is to be expected. It has no reason to agree. Others are taking care of Gaza’s aid needs, preventing an IDF operation [in Hamas’s last major stronghold] in Rafah and pushing to end the war. So why say yes?

I recommend that we say, We are willing to end the Gaza conflict and, in the final stage of that process, to carry out a full withdrawal of our troops. On one condition: that all of the hostages are returned

Israel has two options.

It could say, If the military pressure thus far is not enough, then we have to continue, and carry out a major military operation in Rafah. That does have the benefit of continuing to weaken Hamas militarily, but it is unlikely to yield an agreement [to free the hostages].

The other option: The whole world, from Hamas to the United States and everyone in between, wants an end to the war. The US deeply wants an end to the war. We still have the tools to decide if the war ends. That gives us a certain leverage.

I recommend that we say, We are willing to end the conflict and, in the final stage of that process, to carry out a full withdrawal of our troops. On one condition: that all of the hostages are returned.

Sinwar is likely, though not certain, to agree.

It’s the best possible option for Israel.

If we want to try to achieve more, then we could also seek an understanding with the United States to press Qatar and others that reconstruction of Gaza will not happen so long as Hamas is in control.

We’d then be in a situation where Hamas has already lost 80% of its military force. Gaza is in ruins. There’s no Qatar-financed reconstruction. If there is also an alternative leadership, with the PA and Egypt, Hamas might very well fall.

We could also try to facilitate a US-Egyptian deal regarding forces to prevent Hamas from rearming across the border.

A woman and her children walk past a wall with photographs of hostages who were kidnapped during the October 7 Hamas-led cross-border terror onslaught in Israel, seen in Jerusalem, February 26, 2024. (Leo Correa/AP)

It’s not a total victory, but if Israel gets all the living hostages back, and 80% of Hamas is destroyed, including its tunnels and its rocket production capabilities and its gunmen, we could reasonably say that a military threat from Gaza no longer exists. And Hamas would see no advantage in restarting firing on Israel because that would renew the war.

Again, I don’t know if Hamas would agree. But after what just happened with Iran recedes, the world will return to pressuring Israel over Gaza.

And if Israel was saying it is ready to end the war if the hostages are freed, what Western state would say no?

There is a price that we paid on October 7 that we simply cannot recover. But what happened, happened. If we want to progress, that’s what we have to do.

Where does the Lebanon war front fit into this?

Residents are gradually being able to return to the south [alongside Gaza]. In contrast, in the north, that’s not the case. [Tens of thousands of Israelis, in areas under constant threat of Hezbollah missile attack, are internally displaced.]

In order to be able to tackle the situation in the north, we need to end the war in Gaza [and not only to avoid the military strain of fighting simultaneously on two fronts]. The chances of an agreement with Hezbollah are not bad, but Hezbollah’s honor means it won’t agree to a ceasefire if war is ongoing in Gaza.

An Israeli Navy vessel is seen near the Lebanon border during a drill, in an image released April 9, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

I propose that Israel declare, now, that, on September 1, life will return to the north. People will go home, children will go back to their schools there. If in the next month, a combination of US, French, Saudi, and other pressure on Lebanon [for Hezbollah to cease fire and withdraw] enables that, great. If not, Israel will undertake a major military operation in Lebanon.

If the Gaza war ends, you can gain greater legitimization for action in Lebanon. That is important because while the US has no problem with the idea of Israel fighting Hezbollah, it certainly would have a problem with Israel attacking Lebanese state infrastructure, and Israel would have to harm the infrastructure of the state of Lebanon [in order to defang Hezbollah].

So, putting all this together…?

On Iran: Don’t act against Iran now. We’ve had a great achievement in thwarting Iran’s attack.

On Gaza: Demand the hostages as a price for an end to the war.

On Lebanon: Try to reach a diplomatic solution; if that proves impossible, focus the military effort there.

An image grab from a video taken early on April 14, 2024, shows the Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, with the lights of missile interceptions visible in the night sky, early on April 14, 2024, after Iran fired ballistic missiles at Israel (AFP)

(In a Channel 12 interview on Monday night, Eiland elaborated, “Israel should not attack in Iran. Period. There is potential for consequent complications — military, regional and with all our allies. And the achievement [of any such attack] in any case would not be significant.” Instead, he urged a response against Iranian interests in Syria and/or Lebanon: “Israel has a real interest in preventing Iran from building what it is trying to build in Syria — a Hezbollah mark-2,” Eiland said. “I think the Iranians would absorb that and not respond, and if they do, the world would be with us.” And “Israel’s main challenge, militarily and strategically right now, is Lebanon.”)

You’ve covered a lot of ground, but you’ve not talked about Iran’s nuclear drive, which is surely the key strategic threat to Israel?

Imagine if all those missiles fired on Saturday night were fired tomorrow at Saudi Arabia or two days from now at Eastern Europe — which Iran can do. And then imagine if they were carrying nuclear warheads

Right. There are two things that the world needs to understand cannot be tolerated, and there will be a high price to pay if they are not changed.

One, the Iranian nuclear program.

Imagine if all those missiles fired on Saturday night were fired tomorrow at Saudi Arabia or two days from now at Eastern Europe — which Iran can do.

And then imagine if they were carrying nuclear warheads.

Imagine a war in the Middle East in which Iran says, We have nuclear weapons and we will use them.

This represents a danger to the existence of the region, maybe to the whole world.

Motorists drive past a billboard showing named Iranian ballistic missiles, with text in Arabic reading “the honest [person’s] promise” and in Persian “Israel is weaker than a spider’s web”, in Valiasr Square in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
This coalition that defended Israel against Iran this week could serve as the basis for future coordination. If the US finally remembers the Iranian nuclear danger, it needs to create a potent economic and military threat. Iran is very vulnerable to international capabilities. Israel and the US can hit their entire energy infrastructure and cause great damage. That kind of threat must be created.

Two, the world for the past 50 to 70 years has talked of two kinds of entities: States that have international obligations, and if they do bad things, they must pay a price and therefore can be deterred. And terror groups, which were generally seen as groups of a few hundred people with keffiyehs and Kalashnikovs that carry out attacks, cause damage, but don’t really threaten world peace.

But Hezbollah and the Houthis have the capabilities to cause profound damage. Hezbollah and the Houthis are terror groups bound by no international obligations, subject to no international laws, vulnerable to no international deterrence, but they have capabilities as strong, if not stronger, than many states. In that respect, they are mini-superpowers.

The world must re-address the nature of terror groups, and recognize that some of them are monsters with some superpower capabilities

The Houthis can fire missiles 2,000 kilometers and shut down naval commerce. Hezbollah could trigger regional war by hitting Israel, and an Israeli response could then prompt the involvement of Iran from Syria, Iran directly, potentially Russia, and you’ve got a world war.

So the world must re-address the nature of terror groups, and recognize that some of them are monsters with some superpower capabilities, not subject to the UN or Geneva or international agreements.

This also has relevance for Iran and the imperative to tackle Iran. Hezbollah and the Houthis are Iranian creations. It has to be recognized that Iran created monsters that are not accountable and that endanger the world.

This image grab taken from a UGC video posted on social media on April 13, 2024, shows Iran’s Revolutionary Guards rappelling down onto a container ship, MSC Aries, near the Strait of Hormuz. (Video screenshot)

Iran’s nuclear program and its creation of these monsters have to be tackled.

Until a few years ago, I would have said that Russia would have been on board for such an effort. After Putin, hopefully, it would back a global coalition to deal with Iran.

You don’t include Hamas among the “monsters”?

No. It has tried to carry out attacks in Germany and elsewhere, but it’s seen as an Israeli problem. Hezbollah, and the Houthis, and militias in Iraq, and Iran’s latest efforts — to build militias in Sudan — these are potential global issues.

We should talk about Israel’s ties with the US — friction-filled, fraying, but robust in the days ahead of and during the Iranian attack.

For decades, the US — Democratic and Republican administrations alike — distinguished between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as a political issue, and security issues.

The US said, If there’s a security issue, whether it relates to Syria or Iran or others, we’ll help Israel. We are obligated to Israel’s security, uncompromisingly so.

But on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, what they call the occupation, settlements, opposition to a two-state solution, the United States is not with us. At best, it’s in between.

Lots of Israelis are confused about this. But we’ve just been seeing it play out.

There’s an opportunity now for a reset in our relations with the United States

As regards Gaza, and extremist settler violence, we’ve heard very bitter US criticism. But the moment there’s a military threat to Israel, the commitment to Israel’s security, as Biden says, is “ironclad.”

We have to leverage the positive and lower the flames on the negative. There’s an opportunity now for a reset in our relations with the United States. We need to heed the United States — regarding the response to Iran now, and also regarding the settlers.

And we need to listen to them on Gaza. They’ll appreciate it if we say we are willing to end the war in return for all the hostages, because Biden dearly wants an end of the war.

It would also mean we would have greater support for war if needed in Lebanon.

And not heeding the US on these issues risks losing its support for things that are absolutely central to our interests.

US President Joe Biden meets with his top Cabinet and National Security officials to discuss Iran’s attacks on Israel, at the White House, April 13, 2024. (White House)

I want to ask you briefly about Qatar. I wrote recently about an intelligence report that sets out Qatar’s record as a rogue actor, deeply harmful to Israel, to the US and to America’s allies…

I agree with that. Qatar, with its billions, is what turned Hamas into what it is now. The US must demand a shift.

Qatar challenges the heart of the United States ethos, inside the United States, and the US doesn’t stop it

Qatar also funds research and education institutions and programs in the US, promoting not merely an anti-Israel ideology, but an anti-US ideology. Qatar challenges the heart of the United States ethos, inside the United States, and the US doesn’t stop it.

There’s leverage. Qatar needs the US. They benefit from ties with Iran even as they are protected by the US base in Qatar [southwest of Doha, the biggest US military installation in the Middle East]. If the US threatens to move that base to Saudi Arabia, Qatar would be in a weaker position. For now, it enjoys the best of all worlds.

At the very least, the US should oblige Qatar to completely stop cash and aid to Hamas, and, as I’ve said, insist that there be no Gaza reconstruction until after Hamas and without Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani at a hotel during a day of meetings, amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

Let’s talk briefly about the Palestinian issue, including in the context of regional cooperation.

The United States wants coordination between Israel and the Sunni states against Iran, and Saturday night shows how effective this can be. But that doesn’t automatically require a two-state solution. There are many alternatives. I think the US realizes that some rethinking is needed — some distinguishing between trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue and saying this requires a two-state solution. It’s much more complicated.

What happened on October 7, and since, deepened Israeli security concerns. A potential Palestinian state would have a border running south, in part, from Tulkarem to Qalqilya. We could potentially have a Gaza-style invasion from there. That can’t be safe. When Secretary of State Blinken says an Israeli-Saudi deal will guarantee Israeli security, how would it prevent an invasion from the Tulkarem area in the direction of [the immediately adjacent] Kfar Saba?

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, October 11, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

We need to open a dialog on this with the United States. There’s a difference between an Israeli-Palestinian effort and a two-state solution. A quarter-century ago, Clinton said definitively [of the two states formula], That’s the solution. That’s not so.

It was a mistake to have hurt the Palestinian Authority and enabled Hamas to rise, but that can be changed.

And finally, what about our future?

(Laughs wryly.) It depends on us. Without wanting to get deeply into politics, Netanyahu is causing terrible destruction in all fields. I hope there’ll be an election in the next year, and a normal government that can fix our ties with Jordan and Egypt and the United States, and create conditions to allow calm for us as regards Gaza and Lebanon.

And I hope that next year, on the eve of Passover, we’ll talk again, and the situation will be better.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure:
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.