Controversial strategist Ronen Tzur departs helm of hostages forum

Hostage families ask Tzur, who pushed messages accusing the government of abandoning their loved ones, to step down amid growing criticism of his tactics

Hadas Kalderon (C) and families of hostages march to a rally outside Israel Defense Forces headquarters on December 16, 2023, in the Kirya area of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Hadas Kalderon (C) and families of hostages march to a rally outside Israel Defense Forces headquarters on December 16, 2023, in the Kirya area of Tel Aviv, Israel.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu articulated the goals of the war against Hamas following the Oct. 7 attacks, he said they were to topple Hamas and free the hostages. It was unclear if both could be achieved and which should be prioritized.

More than four months later, as over 130 hostages languish in Gaza, the Israeli public is divided on what the war’s central goal should be. Now, the Hostages’ Families Forum, the central group advocating on behalf of the hostages, whose relatives have been divided over tactics, is facing a leadership vacuum, following the departure of founder and head Ronen Tzur.

In Israel, Tzur is a well-known political strategist and crisis communications expert known for orchestrating negative campaigns against Netanyahu. He briefly served as a Knesset member in the Labor party in 2006, and more recently advised war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz when he entered politics in 2019, as well as Malka Leifer, ahead of her extradition to Australia to face charges that she molested students as a school principal. Tzur founded a movement dedicated to protesting against the government’s judicial reform proposal, and spearheaded a campaign titled “How to Defeat the Bibi-ist Terrorism,” a reference to the Hebrew title of a book on terrorism edited by Netanyahu.

Tzur initiated the establishment of the volunteer-based Hostages’ Families Forum in the days following the Oct. 7 attack — many of the leading figures in the forum worked with him in different capacities before the war. 

Forty-five hostage families signed onto a petition calling for Tzur’s ouster, citing his polarizing personality and a sense that key government figures did not want to work with him.

“In order for a deal to be approved at this point in time, we need consensus more than ever,” the petition reads. “One of the most important factors in creating public consensus is to operate under a head of the forum who is not painted in one political color or another, whether it is his fault or not.”

Tzur presented his departure as a resignation by choice following a meeting with hostages’ families on Sunday.

The families “expressed grave concern about the reaction of political factors in the coalition to my involvement in managing the forum,” Tzur wrote on X, and said that Knesset coalition lawmakers told hostages’ relatives that they could not help them as long as he led the forum.

”I have no intention to allow any political factor to directly or indirectly threaten the hostages’ families and turn them into hostages of immoral political factors who lack a conscience,” he wrote.

The forum will now be led by an elected team from among the hostages’ relatives, and will have a team of advisors — which could include Tzur himself.

His departure from the families’ forum came as accusations of politicization of the hostages’ cause became more frequent in right-wing media outlets. Early in the war, a group of hostages’ relatives who opposed the exchange of Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands for their loved ones established the “Tikva Forum” using the Hebrew word for “hope”; they found themselves being shouted at and accused of being government moles by people affiliated with the larger families’ forum. 

Over the weekend, Ditza Or, mother of Avinatan Or, who was kidnapped from the Nova music festival, said in an interview with religious Zionist newspaper Makor Rishon that the forum’s call to release the hostages at all costs “weakens the country, and the one who pays the price is my son.” 

In a rare occurrence of criticism of the Hostages’ Families Forum in mainstream Israeli media, right-wing Ma’ariv columnist Kalman Liebskind dedicated a column to the topic, highlighting aggressive tactics taken up by Tzur towards the government as it engaged in hostage negotiations.

Liebskind published talking points that Tzur and his team gave to hostages’ relatives claiming, with no evidence, that “there is a government campaign against us and the hostages and against a deal to free our loved ones. In the moment of truth, there is a diabolical plan against us in the media…to sacrifice the hostages and an organized incitement campaign against the civilians and soldiers who were kidnapped as part of the largest security failure in the history of the state.”

In response to the article, Tzur posted on X on Friday: “The massacre propagandist Kalman Liebskind calls it a political struggle…Where we see women being raped and men dying, he sees ballots. [Hamas Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar is proud of you, Kalman.” 

Asaf Pozniak, another founder of the forum, came out in Tzur’s defense after his departure: “On October 8, I called my manager Ronen Tzur and asked for his help after two members of my family, Hodaya and Tair David, of blessed memory, were missing from the [Nova] party in Reim. Unlike many other people, Ronen stood up for me and all the other families immediately. I will always remember that.”

The forum released a statement thanking Tzur “for his significant part in establishing the forum and his tireless volunteering for the families whose worlds were destroyed…The overarching goal of the Hostages Families Forum was and remains the return of all 134 hostages who are wasting away in Hamas tunnels, undergoing physical, sexual and psychological torture and are being held in inhumane conditions without food, water, oxygen, medicines and hope.”

The forum added that “the people of Israel, in all of its diversity, are united in the demand to do the mitzvah of redeeming captives and bringing back all of the hostages. Without their return, Israel cannot recover.”

In addition, the forum said that the members of the war cabinet and its leader — Netanyahu —- are solely responsible for bringing back the hostages.

”They cannot miss any opportunity to bring them all home now,” the statement reads.

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