The following is a transcript of an interview with Isaac Herzog, President of Israel, that aired on Nov. 12, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, who joins us from Jerusalem. Good afternoon to you, sir.
PRESIDENT OF ISRAEL ISAAC HERZOG: Good morning, Margaret.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Your country lost 1,200 of its civilian citizens on October the seventh. And I know, you’re still reeling from that. But what we’re seeing in Gaza right now with Hamas, and this concentration of very intense fighting around Al-Shifa Hospital. If that is indeed Hamas’ command center does that mean this war ends if you take control of it?
PRESIDENT HERZOG: Well, the war we’ve- we’ve taken on against Hamas is a war which matters to the entire well- being and safety of the world, I would say. And therefore, our main aim at this stage following the atrocities we’ve gone through on October 7 is to uproot the capability of Hamas. It doesn’t end in Shifa Hospital. They’re based all throughout Gaza. Unfortunately, they’re based in a- in a whole city underneath, with billions of dollars being spent underneath the cities of Gaza. By the way, with a lot of taxpayers’ money from the West, which went in to rebuild Gaza, following the pull-out of Israel in 2005. And that’s why it will take a long drawn-out operation.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I know you have personally met with many of the families of the roughly 240 hostages being held by Hamas and other terror groups. Can you explain why Israel is reportedly now considering releasing Palestinian women and children from your prisons in exchange for some of these hostages held by Hamas?
PRESIDENT HERZOG: So first of all, I must tell you on a personal level, that it’s- it’s heartbreaking and tormenting. Truly tormenting. What can you tell a father whose wife and kids are out there and nobody knows their whereabouts. And everybody can think about their, his or her family and understand how, how painful this is. Therefore, I don’t want to give any illusions. Qatar is trying to mediate, so is Egypt. In order to get a humanitarian release of- of some of the hostages, we demand all the hostages. That’s the worldwide demand. But there are- there are talks, of course, behind the scenes. I cannot confirm any details. What I can say is that there is nothing substantial right now on the table. The United States is also heavily involved in this. So there’s nothing tangible that I can report. We all hope and pray that there will be progress. And we are using all tools possible in order to bring about the release of the hostages as soon as possible.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I asked because in the past, Israel has flatly refused that Hamas proposal to release Palestinians from prison. Are you saying that’s a false report?
PRESIDENT HERZOG: It’s not the same. It’s not the same. The report doesn’t say that Israel is willing to release murderers who are sentenced for life sentence, or murderers who have butchered time and again Israelis of all ages of all professions, and all- and innocent people. In my speech in Congress to a joint session of the House in July, mid-July, I said that the entire problem with the peace process in the region is terror. Terror is undermining the entire ability to move forward. The- all of those who remember decades of trying to make peace with our neighbors know that we can make peace with those who adhere to the agreements and fight terror. Unfortunately, a nation which supports and hails terror cannot be a partner and we’ve seen the atrocious results. Let me give you an example. So, this is Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf in Arabic. Adolf Hitler, the- of course the- how do I say the monster that led to World War II and the Holocaust which is the worst atrocity in modern times. Adolf Hitler’s book is here, which was found amidst in the hands of one of these terrorists in a house, in a living room of children, which were turned into a Hamas base. That’s what we’re dealing with day in, day out. This is extremely painful and unfortunate. And therefore, when you say, “release this, release that”, first and foremost, we have to know that we get our hostages back. And secondly, what was reported, as you mentioned, what had to do with women and children, which is- I can’t confirm it but I can say it has nothing to do with these criminals, these murderers that are deep in Israeli jails for many, many years.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I understand, and the United States of America considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization and has for decades. They are very clear on that. But as you just mentioned, you have long been an advocate for peace with the Palestinians. But there are many in the current government who before October 7, were not and do not favor two states for two people. Do you still believe that is the way ultimately to have peace?
PRESIDENT HERZOG: So, I’ll speak very honestly and frankly, because I know- I don’t shy away from my beliefs, which I presented when I was a political leader in the Israeli political arena. I’m currently the President of Israel, head of state, the executive powers lie with a government which is headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. But let’s also be honest and think whether an average Israeli citizen who seeks security, first and foremost for him, for his kids, for his parents, for his loved ones. Why would anybody agree right now to any progress when our neighbors, when we don’t see, truly, their ability to fight terror? And many, many of them, including those in Gaza, are hailing and smiling and celebrating in the most atrocious way, the world’s greatest atrocity, almost, since World War II. May I also add and tell you that part of the whole issue is that it’s kind of a culture that celebrates these awful atrocities–
MARGARET BRENNAN: — Which culture?
PRESIDENT HERZOG: — These atrocities cannot be agreed- accepted in any way it means. It has nothing to do with the conflict. It has nothing to do with the borders, with settlements, or anything. This is simple. Simple, clear, barbarism, Jew hate, other hate, which is advocated by ISIS, Hamas, al Qaeda. Which if we weren’t here, then Europe would be next and probably the United States is the end game for all of them.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I understand. And I’m not discounting in any way, antisemitism around the globe, which is on the rise. When it comes specifically, though, to the long-term security of the democratic and Jewish state of Israel, it sounds like you have lost some hope for that peace process. But I wonder, given what you are seeing happen in Gaza right now and the wish you have for security for your people, aren’t you concerned that more individuals will be radicalized by the level of civilian casualties right now?
PRESIDENT HERZOG: So we have to, we have to think about the horizon. And our- our war in Gaza. Its outcome- if we eradicate the capabilities of Hamas, we give hope to the Palestinians in Gaza to- to run their life decently, as we’ve expected in their courts we had with the Palestinians. We enabled the Palestinian Authority to take control of Gaza and they lost it. They lost it to a brutal coup of Hamas in 2007. But the issue is I kept on asking President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in- on numerous occasions. Would you go in if Israel takes Hamas out? And he said no. Now I don’t know exactly where he’s at, and if they’re even capable of doing so. But one thing is clear, we first and foremost have to give safety and security to Israel. And I think a lot of the ideas that will be worked out afterwards will be dependent on their ability to produce safety and security for Israel. And by the way for the Palestinians as well. I don’t shy away from it. And I believe that all nations in the region would like to get to that moment because the trajectory, after all, the historic trajectory is the inclusion of Israel in the region, and normalization with its neighbors and the whole atrocious campaign, this sadism and barbarism, first and foremost has to do with eradicating Israel, but also undermining, and of course, stopping this process of normalization in the region.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. Even the United States government says that death toll of 11,000 Palestinians may be an undercount. They say they can’t separate civilians from Hamas fighters, but it’s still a tremendous amount of death. So, given that, how can you say with certainty that Israel’s military and intelligence is hitting the right targets right now? That the dying that is happening is necessary and helpful to your security?
PRESIDENT HERZOG: I thank you for this question. First of all, because I want to express my utter pain and sorrow for any innocent casualty on the Palestinian side. We are doing our utmost according to international humanitarian law. First and foremost, we alert people. Well, I mean, what’s the story here? The enemy, these terrorists fought and tried to kill us and send missiles and terrorists from their homes. So, we have to go to these homes. And we have to blow up all their infrastructure, tunnel, missiles, everything. So we go and we send leaflets, we call and we phone and we send text messages to all the civilians in that area. We tell them move out, we give them time to move out. And we’ve opened humanitarian corridors, and we have increased dramatically the humanitarian aid to those who are moving out to the safety zone. Unfortunately, there could be casualties. Some of them are also by Hamas fire ,and their reporting and the numbers are unclear to me. But- but I’m saying outright, we are doing our best. In conjunction with the United States, we are listening very carefully to the United States government, to the White House, to our friends in the United States, and of course, to our friends around the world. And we are trying our best to mitigate the damage for honest- for innocent civilians, or uninvolved participants in this battle. But sometimes things can happen. It happened also to the US led coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, these things happen, and we are sorry for it. But at the end of the day, we have to uproot that infrastructure, because we have to defend ourselves according to our right and duty to defend our people.
MARGARET BRENNAN: President Herzog, thank you for your time. We’ll be back in a moment.