Transcript – President Herzog in Conversation with Borge Brende, Davos 2024

Welcome, Mr. President. You've been in Davos before but that was before the atrocities of 7 October, the terror attack that really hit Israel very, very badly. So maybe, let's start Mr. President with you sharing how is the zeitgeist, how is the feelings now among Israelis? Let's start there.

Our world was shattered on 7 October. I can say that we were celebrating a Jewish holiday, the feast of the Bible, the Torah, and we were awoken into a huge shock, which didn't comprehend fully, and we haven't comprehended yet as a nation. It was 6:30 in the morning, sirens all of a sudden blew up the silence of the morning, of a holiday, people were on vacation. Little did we imagine that we will see such terrible horrors, that we will see something that humanity has not seen for generations, that we will see something that has hit the Jewish people in the State of Israel with the highest numbers of Jews being killed since the Holocaust. And these are the facts, meaning we've seen atrocities barbarism, sadism, rape, chopping off of heads, burning of families. In one of the houses that was burned, there was barbed wires around a whole block of ash. This is a five people family. And most of all, the hostages. This is Kfir Bibas. Kfir today, is celebrating one year to his birth. Exactly a year ago he was born to his parents, Shiri his mother and his father Yarden, and his brother Ariel. His whereabouts are unknown. We know he was kidnapped by Hamas. We know that these barbaric terrorist have taken him and his mother and his brother, and his father held in a different place. We know that they are going through hell, and we don't know their whereabouts. The enemy – who supposedly advocates he has a cause in life – is basically advocating jihadism, celebrating and glorifying terror, celebrating and glorifying the abduction of Kfir Bibas. And from here, this incredible world stage, I call upon the entire universe to work endlessly to free Kfir, and all the hostages that are there about 136 by now.

Thank you very much. Mr. President. Thank you for sharing this. Also, as Professor Schwab said in his introduction to you, I have known you also as a man of peace. You have always been someone that has said that we need peace in the Middle East, and the war is still ongoing in Gaza. How do you see an end of this war and also that's probably related to the situation for the hostages. There are 100 hostages probably left?

We have 136 hostages there including four from the 2014 war – including Muslims, including women, foreign nationals, young girls, older women, Holocaust survivors – or connected to the Holocaust. So you have from one year old to 85 year old. People of peace, many of them were advocates of peace - Oded Lifshitz was a major advocate of peace, he would work in Gaza. These communities, burned and ruined and brought to ashes, were communities that advocated endlessly working for peace with the Palestinians. So, if we look with a bird's eye view of the of the war that we are seeing, it's not only between Israel and Hamas, I will deal with Israel and Hamas, but the issue is and the world has to face it point blank with no ifs and buts. There is an empire of evil emanating from Tehran, spending billions of dollars in arms and money and people's well-being to derail the entire stability of the world and the region. They've attacked the United States forces two nights ago, openly. They have proxies all over the region quietly lurking to undermine any peace process and any stability of the world. And that is exactly what we are seeing – and they have to be faced by a very strong coalition. Hamas is one major element of this jihadist ISIS type culture, who has decided to launch a war against the well-being of the only nation state of the Jewish people, butchering and murdering Jews and Muslims alike in the most barbaric way and we have to uproot them and enable a better future for the Palestinians who are our neighbours. We don't shy away from the fact that the Palestinians are our neighbours. But if you ask an average Israeli now about his or her mental state, nobody in his right mind is willing now to think about what will be the solution of the peace agreements, because everybody wants to know, can we be promised real safety in the future? Every Israeli wants to know that he will not be attacked in the same way from north or south or east. You have Hizballah in the north, armed up to its neck by Iran, financed by Iran, and simply firing, ongoing, and killing civilians, and killing soldiers, and going to war with Israel. And then the world tends to forget and time goes on. But the truth is that we are fighting a war for the entire universe for the free world. I always say if Israel was not there, Europe will be next, because these barbaric jihadists want to get all of us out of the region and want to get all of Europe out of its place as well. And the United States is next too. So this war is something of an essential element in the history of humanity.

Mr. President, the war in Gaza has now gone on for 100 days. And I think Israel is not immune, either to the international criticism on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. So there are 2 million people now living under very, very tough conditions, and many of them didn't support Hamas. So what is your message to those that are also now suffering?

I have a message to the to all our neighbours first of all, and especially to the Palestinians. I've been advocating and calling for peace with our neighbours for years. I said it in my speech in a joint session of Congress on 19 of July, just before the war. Terror is the main impediment to moving towards peace. You cannot accept terror directly or indirectly, you cannot justify it, it has to be totally stopped and out of the question. And the problem is that there are societies, there are people, when they support Hamas, they support terror, simple barbaric terror against LGBTQ, or against any other human being, or against anyone who is Jewish, Israeli or the like, this has to be a clear message to the world: terror is unacceptable. Now we therefore went to war, because we see a war machine of a humungous structure right in Gaza. Huge cities of terror underneath. Tunnels that are higher than the size of the New York subway system. That means billions of dollars that had they gone to life above ground we would have the most beautiful region in the world, and move to peace. But instead they opted to go to terror – it was taken over by Hamas in a coup d’etat in 2007 after we pulled out of Gaza unilaterally to the last iota. And from then on, it became a platform for Iran and all its proxies. And from then on, we had thousands of missiles on our heads. And from then on, we reached this barbaric moment on October 7, and now we go in, according to our right of self defence, and in every house you find terror equipment, in a bedroom you pull up the bed you'll find a missile that can shoot hundreds of kilometres. Everywhere you go, they can press a button and you have missiles on Israel like we had this week. We pulled out from the centre, we had missiles. So we have to understand if we have the right to defend ourselves. It's an inherent right to go catch the terrorists, clean up the houses, and bring back the citizens. That is what we're trying to do. I'm not shying away from the human tragedy in Gaza. And you want to know something? We care. We care. It is painful for us that our neighbours are suffering so much. But how else can we defend ourselves if our enemies decided to entrench themselves in an infrastructure of terror of unbelievable size and scope? It's a very complicated battle everywhere we go – in shops, in living rooms, in bedrooms in schools - in schools you see, we had even ISIS flags in schools. I presented to the world, Hitler’s book Mein Kampf we found in living rooms, and a recent brochure that we found, a directive by Hamas about how to run summer camps for children titled “you have to instil in them the values of jihadism and resistance”, which means terror. So let's agree, if the world wants to keep the world order of post World War Two, in a decent manner, it has to fight terror and support fighting terror – and look at the Houthis, because here in the World Economic Forum, the Houthi issue is number one priority because it raises the cost of living for every family. A little tribe of 50,000 people, amassed with weapons of an empire. I don't think Norway has such weapons: ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, drones. What the hell is going on here? What is this? We are unravelling a huge system of evil that the world has to unite and say: we know it's difficult, but we are with Israel to get the things done. I welcome very much the fact that there is an international armada and coalition fighting the Houthis, because it's an issue that makes clear that terror cannot be acceptable anymore.

So Mr. President, some people would say that was a mistake in 2005 when Sharon pulled out of Gaza, and also opened up for elections and then Hamas came to power. But then of course, this also has led to less momentum also for a two-state solution because Hamas has been there. If you look at it, in hindsight, should that have been handled differently?

I will say that when we look - and my vision is towards the future - we've tried many, many alternatives in our dealings with the Palestinians. We tried agreements and we tried unilateral steps. We tried a lot, I think, now is the time that demands also must be presented to the Palestinians to show that they really mean a vision of peace. That requires revamping and reforms in the Palestinian Authority. And we cannot go back to the same good old ritual of fighting Hamas and God forbid returning to another round of battle. We have to offer a future both to Israelis and Palestinians, a future that we can live together, that Gaza can be well managed, and looks forward to the world. Like the regional agreements like the Abraham Accords have projected real prosperity and a real bright future.

So Mr. President, what would you say to those that say that Israel let Hamas, then won those elections and accepted it?

I understand a lot of the criticism about that clearly. And on the other hand, because it's becoming now a major political debate issue, I would not want to allude into that. I will just say that it is clear that we have to support those who extend and for peace and are willing to go with us to a brighter future. We cannot accept a vision, however, let's take the Palestinian Authority for that matter, okay, because Hamas is out of the question. We have to make sure that they do not glorify terror, that they do not teach their children to hate, and hate Jews and Israelis. It cannot be that way and therefore they must be faced with that as well. But otherwise, of course, we have to go and negotiate with those who have always been potential partners for that.

So how do you see the end game of this war in Gaza. I know. It is hard, but war needs also to end. Do you see then the PA and Fatah and PLO taking over the responsibility of Gaza, or do you see still Israeli IDF forces in Gaza?

First of all, you have war right now. Israel as pulled a substantial part of its forces in the northern region and our focus is focused mostly on the southern where we assume that some of Hamas leadership is there. We should see a horizon of a coalition of nations who are willing to commit to rebuilding Gaza in a way that number one enables safety and well being of Israel. Number two, enables safety and well being of the Palestinians and brings a future - a different future - to Gaza. You need strong Western forces, you need strong regional forces. And I'm sure there will also be a dialogue with Palestinians from Gaza and Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority. How is that cooked into a formula that makes sense is exactly the issue that's being discussed right now all over the world, in very, very intimate discussions. We all understand there has to be a vision, and I think part of it should be also going back to the normalisation process of Israel and its neighbours in the region. I think it's part of a package. But that requires support for Israel's efforts to undermine the capabilities of Hamas, and it's still there.

Mr. President, let's come back to the humanitarian situation - problems getting humanitarian support, through the Rafah crossings, the others are closed. Do you wanted to elaborate on that? I think there is immediate need, urgent need for food, water medicines. And of course, you also want to make sure that this comes to the civilians in Gaza.

We are committed from day one, to upgrading and assisting the humanitarian supply to Gaza as much as possible. First, let's remind our dear audience here that from day one, Israel according to the rules of international humanitarian law, identified safe zones so that the citizens who were uninvolved can move there, so that we can go in and uproot the terror infrastructure that we are unravelling now in huge quantities. However, there are dire situations that need to be met naturally under war zones. And as such from day one we've committed to the entry of convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian aid. I myself went to the Nitsana crossing with the media to see how we are screening these trucks. Today, we can screen up to 400 trucks a day. That means about 20,000 tonnes of goods a day. Unfortunately, from Nitsana, it has to go to Rafah and Kerem Shalom - which is another passage we've opened up despite the risk of terror there -  unfortunately, so far the international community did not manage to meet their ability to get to 400 trucks a day. Usually around 200 trucks a day. There was a peak last week of 315. We are doing our best, our best, to enable entry of huge quantities of humanitarian needs to Gaza. There are also about six field hospitals, two marine floating hospitals that we've enabled, water supply which we've enabled, including the desalination project of the United Arab Emirates which has been extremely helpful in in the humanitarian situation as well. Now, the big problem apart from that, is how do you deliver the food, the supplies, all around the Gaza Strip without being shot at, fired on. In one of the main humanitarian routes, underneath we’ve unravelled huge tunnels of terror so that was stopped so we need an alternative route. And we are working on it closely with the United Nations and all the other agencies closely. I would also add that parallel to that, many Israelis are asking themselves in many debates and correctly so, how come such huge humanitarian aid goes in and Kfir Bibas, and all of the other hostages are not even getting any help at all in any way, form, or manner. Now we are praying that the medication that is being supplied with France and Qatar and the international agencies and others in Gaza, will reach them - but that's only the beginning. Israelis are asking themselves: how come the hostages are not getting anything. So I am giving you interesting information that two days ago I've held an intimate closed meeting with representatives of the Red Cross in Israel, in the region, who came to a meeting with families of hostages and hostages who have returned back to discuss the dire medical situation of the hostages. A real dire medical situation, real danger, clear and present danger to our hostages. That meeting was very emotional was very interesting. We went into a in depth discussion about the mechanism of how the Red Cross operates and how it can help under the limitations of this warzone and its ability to have a dialogue with all parties concerned. I hope it will enhance further their ability to help the hostages. It doesn't depend on us. We have a very cruel sadistic enemy was taken a decision to try to torture the Israeli national psyche as well as the hostages themselves.

Thank you, Mr. President. And I think the future of the hostages is a key elements also in ending the Gaza war, but by the way,

It's an important comment. Clearly the solution and the release of the hostages is a key element in this crisis. People must not forget it.

Mr. President, we've known each other for decades and I know you always been also a man that has been advocating for peace. And you even have been advocating for a two state solution when that was not the key topic in Israel. Today, we saw this terror attack on 7 October hitting Israel very hard and it is a terrible situation. But then reflecting on on the situation where the last decade there has been no momentum for the thinking around the two state solution. Because the argument has been that you know we go to Abraham accords, things looks also better with the neighbours. Do you think that one underestimated the impact of not having a political process for a two state solution, and there is no new momentum for that? I know it's premature and you said that yourself and I do fully respect that because of the war. But there needs to be a path also for peace in the future and the path that you were on, resulted in this. Of course the polarisation in Israel made also Israel more vunerable because wasn't ready for this. The focus was maybe somewhere else…

So you raise topics here. The Israeli political system is always very interesting, I will say, full of debates and arguments on so many topics of the day and various agendas. I would not hint in any way - directly or indirectly - that this terror attack is connected to any political process. Hamas has always objected to any political process with the Palestinians. I think it comes from sheer jihadist ideology that wants to eradicate Jews and Israel. It's under their charter. And it's under their belief and perhaps at times, we may have been naive enough to think that Hamas may tame itself or may change its course. It hasn't. Parallel to that and separately from that altogether. There are many questions that Israelis ask themselves, are withdrawals justified? Did it prove itself? These are legitimate questions. Is it really true that the paradigm is necessarily only withdrawal or pull out or things like that? When you pull out you get terror. That's what they saw. We pulled out of Gaza we got terror. It's a paradigm that's clear. We got 10,000 missiles on our heads from the moment we pulled out. There was terror before but we have to admit there was terror afterwards. So these are questions that are legitimate to us. Nonetheless, looking for the big picture in the future. Of course, it's a must that we must work as hard as possible to find new ways and means to have a dialogue with our neighbours of Palestinians and offer a future. But for that the basic question of every Israeli will be - especially after October 7 - what guarantees our well-being? This is a big thing. This is an emotional stage we're in. And I think that when nations come forward and say “two state solution”, they have to first deal with a preliminary question, which is a core question for human beings. Are we offered real safety? What will be the safety? What's the outcome of any process? And can we guarantee safety for ourselves and our people. And I must tell you in the last two years before October 7, there was a huge wave of terror that the world ignored. Michal and me, we went to bereaving families who have suffered horrible terror attacks and nobody gave a damn in the world. So we have to understand that's why I'm saying. Guys, terror is off. The world has to fight with no mercy in order to have a hope to bring real hope for the future.

Thank you, Mr. President. Some would also argue that it was the situation with the lack of a process that led you also to this, at least it's the fact that it took place so it needs to be a different situation moving forward. You're saying Hamas cannot be a part of it. But there were also warnings from Ramallah and the PA to let Hamas then be conducting the leadership in, in Gaza of course…

There is the question why the PA never wanted to make an effort to get back to Gaza, but we can argue about it for a long time.

Of course, Israel cannot be in a situation. You're saying where they can be again missiles and terror coming from Gaza. And also, of course, not from the West Bank. But looking then at how can security be guaranteed in the future because it wasn't guaranteed in what we had. It wasn't perfect either. And now you have to look into the future. And the Arab peace plan was saying when it was launched, that all Arab countries would then recognise Israel, and they would also contribute to a situation where they can guarantee that there were no terror and the security of Israel. Is that something that's the regional context and also supported by the US and the EU, that you will contemplate after this? Is that the way to move forward?

So the regional context is an axis for development and progress. It's an access for a better horizon for all parties concerned. And clearly the Saudi option as part of it, as the whole normalisation process, is the key to the ability to exit from the war into a new horizon. It's still delicate, it's fragile. It will take a long time, but I think that it is actually an opportunity to move forward in the region towards a better future. I view that as a very important development. I encourage all parties who are discussing the option of normalisation with Saudi Arabia. I believe it is a game changer, and it follows suit with the courage of nations such as Egypt, Jordan, and the Abraham Accords nations such as the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Morocco, and the Kingdom of Bahrain. It will mean a world change. And let me add, that actually, the trajectory before October 7, was the vision that was presented by President Biden at the G20 Summit, which is a corridor of connectivity between Israel and India, which means the connectivity between Europe and the South China Sea, which means connectivity between the United States and Australia through a different path which is not the Pacific. This is the grand vision. That vision has been derailed by an empire of evil. And will come back, undoubtedly in my mind, because of the desire of nations to move to peace. We are a peace loving nation. We want to get to peace. Israelis are striving for peace. We care for our neighbours, but we are not willing to be attacked, and we want to preserve the well-being and safety of our nation.

Mr. President, This shows also perspective for peace and reconciliation in the future, and I think you always been a leader that has been arguing for this. But do you think there will be a majority in Israel in the Knesset, that will share this vision when this war is over?

I think that it is for the Israelis to decide, because our nation is a democratic nation with strong pillars of democracy. And the spirit of debate is very strong, and these are legitimate debates - 24/7 we are immersed in this tragedy and in the debate as to how to exit from it. What should be the solution? We understand that the particles of the solution are complicated. You're dealing with many political clocks, and considerations of nations. But I say from the onset, the basic values of Israel are peace and security, we have to answer both, and I think that the Israeli public has always shown its maturity when they know that they get something for real. Israelis lost trust in the peace processes because they could see that terror is glorified by our neighbours. It's a key element in the discussion. You cannot shy away from it. And on the other hand, well, of course not shying away from the fact that there are 5 million Palestinians, and we will have to find ways and means to deal with the issue, and get to a future. But first and foremost, for that in order to change the atmosphere, we need to get the hostages back, we need to prevent terror from recurring, and we should move on that trajectory of normalisation in the region.

And in the middle of this, South Africa brings Israel to the International Court of Justice. What is your reaction to that?

So South Africa is outrageous in its behaviour. Its attacks on Israel are outrageous. They basically support the atrocities and barbarism that we have seen on October 7. They are supporting the sexual gender-based violence that we have seen. And we are calling upon the entire universe to take action on that. They are supporting the barbaric, sadistic attacks on innocent civilians, violating a recognised international boundary. And it's a game of hypocrisy, that South Africa is using the Convention Against Genocide – which was brought and enacted by the international family of nations following the worst atrocity of humankind which was the Holocaust against the Jews in World War Two – against the State of Israel, which is a nation state of the Jewish people defending itself under international law. I hope, and we all hope, that our case was heard well by the justices of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Israel presented an in depth and a very eloquent and convincing case. And I hope that our case will be heard loud and clear, and decisions will follow suit. And I call upon the entire international community to stand with Israel and reject this claim.

Thank you Mr. President. Last question, what is your hope and aspiration for where we are when it comes to Israel, Gaza, your relationship with the Palestinians the Abraham's Accords, and also the original cooperation in a year? What what are you working towards?

Israel is a country that is benefiting the world with so many incredible ideas and initiatives. In the crowd, there are people here who have brought forward the most incredible inventions and innovations, doing good and helping people. I will tell you a story last year, on Purim – it's like the Halloween of the Jewish people – in the celebration of Purim, Michal and I went to the Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem to the children's nephrology department, and we go in and in the corridors, little rooms and we go into each room. In one room there were ultra-Orthodox parents with their kids with their babies. In another room there were orthodox Zionists, in others there were secular parents, in others there were Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. An incredible mixture of all religions and beliefs. In the last room, I go in and there is a mother and father and a baby and I could see she was Arab. And I asked her where are you from? And she said, I am from Gaza. I asked her in Arabic, “where are you from?” She said, “I'm from Gaza”. She was very shy with a little baby. And I said to her in Arabic, “I'm the President of Israel” and she was quite shocked that the leader, the head of state walked into her room, we spoke and I said to her, “I bless your child and I hope you will live in peace”. This child, this family, must have been brought to the hospital by volunteers from the Kibbutzim around Gaza who used to volunteer and take them to treatment. And I believe this is the vision that we have to project. People want to live together, and they want to live in peace. The coexistence in Israel of so many lives and beliefs including between Palestinians and Israelis is immense. But we cannot allow forces of evil who want to ruin this vision and want to drive us into the abyss. We can’t allow them to win. Thank you very much.