Ari Harow reflects on the lessons of 2014 and Netanyahu’s view on hostage negotiations

In an interview with JI, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff talks about his time in the Prime Minister’s Office and his new book

Gabriel Baharlia

Ari Harrow

The year 2014 has been on the minds of many Israelis since the war in Gaza began in October. It was the last time the IDF staged a large-scale ground operation in Gaza, following Hamas’ kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The American administration – headed by then-President Barack Obama – was at odds with Israeli Prime Minister – then and now – Benjamin Netanyahu. A decade later, many of the key players in Washington and Jerusalem are the same with different titles.

The year 2014 was also when Ari Harow was Netanyahu’s chief of staff.

Of course, when Harow wrote his new book My Brother’s Keeper: Netanyahu, Obama, & the Year of Terror & Conflict that Changed the Middle East Forever, he didn’t know how much of the events nearly a decade earlier would reverberate at the time of its publication in late January.

Harow, 51, was born in Los Angeles, and his family moved to Israel when he was 12. Following his IDF service in the Golani Brigade, he returned to the U.S. and moved back and forth between the countries every few years for about a decade. He ran American Friends of Likud from New York in 2003-2006, before working for Netanyahu, who was then opposition leader, as his foreign affairs adviser and then as bureau chief of the Prime Minister’s Office. After leaving the job for health reasons and starting a political consulting firm the following year, he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2014 as chief of staff.

But Harow is probably best known in Israel for what happened after he departed the PMO; he has spent much of the past decade fighting legal charges against him. 

Israeli police began investigating him in 2015, which eventually led them to the recording of Yediot Aharonot publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes discussing with Netanyahu the possibility of passing a law banning free newspapers — meaning the Sheldon Adelson-owned pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom — in exchange for positive media coverage. Harow became a state witness in what’s become known as Case 2000, in which Netanyahu has been indicted on fraud and breach of trust charges.

As part of his plea deal, Harow was convicted on one count of fraud and breach of trust at the end of January – a week after his new book was published – and will have to pay a fine of NIS 700,000 ($192,000) and do six months of community service, the details of which have yet to be determined.

Harow’s book, however, is focused on his year as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. He spoke with Jewish Insider about his time in Netanyahu’s office, what the lessons of 2014 tell us about 2023-2024 and Netanyahu’s view on hostage negotiations.


Jewish Insider: Did you think that so much of what you wrote about 2014 would be so relevant when your book was published 10 years later? 

Ari Harow: About a week or 10 days [after the Oct. 7 attack] it suddenly hit me that, wow, what I wrote about is really…the same players, same actors, same scenarios, but [now it’s] obviously on a much larger scale. The nightmare scenarios I wrote about in the book are the nightmare scenarios that actually took place. That also shows that, when we talk about the intelligence failure, it’s not that we didn’t imagine the [Oct. 7] scenario – I outline it. It was discussed in 2014, [terrorists] crossing the border, taking over kibbutzes, killing people, taking hostages, etc. When it actually took place, it was eerie to go back and look at the book.

JI: One of the things you discuss in the book is the Shalit deal. What do you think were the lessons Netanyahu took from that deal that he could be keeping in mind today? 

AH: There’s policy and there’s politics. From a policy perspective, Netanyahu was a founding and leading voice [discussing] how to deal with terrorists. He was the father of not negotiating with terrorists, and that was always his stance in previous deals that took place. When it came to the Shalit deal – this was not something that he shared publicly – but he told me that his rationale to even contemplate that type of deal was Iran. If we at some point decided to attack Iran’s nuclear capabilities, he wanted to give the pilots and soldiers the confidence that Israel would do everything in their power to bring them home, so that they could go out on their missions without any worries at heart, and therefore he was going to pay a price. 

Fast forward to Oct. 7, 2023, when [Hamas Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar [who was released in the Shalit deal] was the mastermind of the attack and there are others [freed in 2011] that have played horrendous roles in terrorism and attacks against Israel. There’s no question that he has to be rethinking that at this point. In the negotiations for the first group of hostages, the ratio the Israeli government worked with was one [hostage] to three [Palestinian prisoners], not one to 1,027. Before a final deal, the asking price will be much higher, partially because they’re soldiers and from Hamas’ perspective, they’re worth more. Let’s be quite frank, the first group of hostages was a PR nightmare for them, and that’s part of the reason they wanted to go out and make a deal. 

Netanyahu faces a reality whereby on the one hand, he has to deal not only with his own policy principles but with a constituency that still believes in those principles. His constituency did not necessarily support the Shalit deal. At the same time, there was a precedent set that won’t realistically allow him to go back to a 1-for-3 ratio. It’s a very fine line that he’s going to have to walk on.

JI: You hear accusations from pundits and columnists that Netanyahu doesn’t care about the hostages, or that leaving the hostages in Gaza prolongs the war, which helps him politically. You were in the inner sanctum and you saw his emotional state when it came to hostages. What would you say to those people?

AH: I think it’s wrong to accuse any Jew in the State of Israel of not caring about the hostages. It’s just horrendous. That’s the type of divisiveness that we stopped on Oct. 7 that we don’t need back in the public sphere. There is no doubt in my mind that he very much wants to bring the hostages home. There’s no doubt in my mind that he is doing everything he can do, militarily and diplomatically to bring them home. 

The only question that separates anyone on the hostage issue is the price they’re willing to pay. If Hamas said we will give you back all the hostages, but in return you have to abandon Sderot, nobody in Israel would agree to that. We wouldn’t give away land. We wouldn’t give away army bases. We all agree that there are red lines. Now it’s just a matter of what are your red lines. Netanyahu has zero political interest in the hostages not being brought home. He has every interest in bringing them home. I just don’t accept that premise.

JI: Years ago, Netanyahu said in a Likud faction meeting that payments to Qatar help stave off a Palestinian state by keeping Hamas in power in Gaza. Qatar was paying Hamas while you were in the job. What was Netanyahu’s thinking on that?

AH: One of the policy failures of the government and Israel’s military and security services over the last couple of decades is [the idea] that you can buy quiet, be it through monetary transfers via other diplomatic concessions. Just as Iran is a threat that we take at face value, meaning that when Iran says we want to wipe [Israel] off the map, the State of Israel went around the world saying hey, they actually mean it, so did Hamas and Hezbollah when they say they want to wipe us off the map. It is not a threat that we can throw money at. It’s not a threat that we can push concessions at. It’s not a threat that we can throw diplomatic initiatives at…I think that that was a principle that was not fully internalized. It was a huge mistake, and we’re seeing the results of that.

JI: Do you think that Netanyahu’s emphasis on Iran blinded him to threats closer to home?

AH: It’s not that he overemphasized Iran, it was that he underemphasized Iranian proxies, especially those that are on our borders…Netanyahu is prime minister but the same is true for our chief of staff and our heads of military intelligence and the Shin Bet and Mossad. They projected this arrogance that we’re fine, there’s no real threat. They clearly were mistaken and we should have been more grounded as a country in what we’re facing.

JI: Iran was a huge sticking point – though one of many – between Netanyahu and former President Barack Obama. A lot of the same people are in the Biden administration now. Do you feel like bad blood from the past impacts the way things work now?

AH: I think that the initial support of the Biden administration and President Biden himself on Oct. 7 and the days and weeks and even months after that was almost unprecedented. They were staunchly on Israel’s side, there was no attempt at balance or no attempt at moral equivalency. It was Israel’s right, these are terrorists, and the terrorists need to be destroyed. We haven’t heard that from other American leaders during times of conflict, probably ever. So I think that the administration’s support for the first few months was tremendous. 

Over the last number of weeks…that has started to shift. Part of that is expected. As we get further and further away from the visuals of those atrocities on Oct. 7, the international community reverts back into its old habits. 

There is no question that the push we’re starting to see now towards Palestinian statehood

ties into those same individuals who played key roles in the Obama administration. I think that there’s a certain naivete and a certain blindness to the realities of the Middle East. To think that the Israeli public – I’m not even talking about the leadership – just a few months after what we experienced on Oct. 7, would be willing to contemplate creating any type of Palestinian state is just insane. The fact is that we’ve paid the price in blood over and over and over again for decades now, every time foreign powers and the U.S. administration decided that they want to push towards statehood…The Israeli people are not there and they’re not going to be there in the near future and this push towards [a Palestinian state] shows a complete disconnect with what’s really happening here. I think that there’s no question that those sentiments continue from the Obama administration. 

JI: It’s interesting to see attempts by some Democrats to pin the war on Netanyahu when the war has very broad support in Israel. Do you think that’s residual tension from the Obama years? Or is it just more politically expedient to speak that way? 

AH: I think it’s both. Tension between Netanyahu and the Obama administration obviously peaked with Netanyahu’s speech [on the Iran nuclear deal] to the joint session of Congress in 2015 and that most certainly did leave scars on the Democratic side of the aisle. That resentment is still felt by some within the Democratic Party 

At the same time, I do think [blaming Netanyahu] is politically beneficial to both sides. In other words, Biden is running for re-election. Challenging an unpopular prime minister – he’s currently unpopular in Israel and he is definitely not the most popular in the United States amongst Democrats – is in Biden’s political interest. Netanyahu benefits from it as well. If he can move the discussion away from the failures of Oct. 7 to fighting off an internationally mandated Palestinian state, then he wins points with his political base and everybody’s happy. 

JI: You recently said that you think Netanyahu needs to go. Do you think he will resign, or will he have to be politically defeated?

AH: First and foremost, we need to win this war. I do not think he should be kicked out of office today. I think that we’re still in a very, very fragile situation here in Israel. We have soldiers dying daily in Gaza. We are still under attack daily, be it from the south, be it from the north. We’re still not sure where things are headed with Hezbollah in the north. Until the ship is somewhat stabilized, I don’t think that any type of reshuffling via elections or otherwise is a smart move. 

When that day does come, I think it’s important that Israel get a fresh start. He is the head of the pyramid, the prime minister who served for 14 of the last 15 years. I say this with tremendous respect and admiration, [but] in the aftermath of Oct. 7, we need a fresh start.

JI: Likud used to be a party with very lively internal politics, but now they are devoted to their one leader. You were a Likud insider for a long time – what do you think happened?

AH: I think it’s a shame. Likud is the largest democratic body in Israel…it’s by far the largest party with open primaries. And just as in any other system, competition is a healthy thing…I think that there’s been a shift whereby anyone who’s a potential challenger to Netanyahu has either resigned or created their own party. I mean, look at both [Moshe] Ya’alon and Gideon Saar…who went home. It’s left the party devoid of any true competition, of anyone who can challenge [Netanyahu] and not only politically but from a policy perspective and from an ideological perspective. While he’s been the linchpin to keeping the Likud in power for so long, it’s weakened the party significantly.

JI: There are a lot of rustlings of frustration with Netanyahu in Likud. Do you think something will change, or that his hold on the party is too strong for that to happen?

AH: I think he’s still extremely popular in Likud and I can’t see anyone unseating him at the ballot box within the Likud party. 

Having said that, I do believe and I know that there are powers within the Likud that want to see change and are not going to sit idly through another round or two rounds of the current Likud situation. Some of them have been vocal already, like Yuli [Edelstein], a really prominent member of the party who served as speaker of the Knesset for many years and a minister for many years. He’s been very vocal that he feels the country needs a new leader and that the Likud needs a new leader. Netanyahu’s friction with [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant is well documented, as well. I think that those are just a couple of examples of powers within the party that I think will challenge him and potentially bring about a new dynamic within the Likud and within the right, come next election.

JI: Around the time you left was when Netanyahu started to seem more insular. There used to be a lot more people surrounding him every day, and then the numbers dwindled significantly. What do you think happened?

AH: I can just analyze from the outside looking in. I think two things happened. Firstly, politically 2015 was a turning point, as he was projected to lose the election. Everybody thought that his time was over, and he beat the odds in a big way. It set him on a path where now, nine years later he’s still Prime Minister of Israel, and there was a sense that he can’t be defeated at that point. I think that that changes the way you handle your office and the way you handle people.

The second thing is the legal troubles that he’s dealt with which started a little bit later, but that put him in a position where he has felt the need to isolate himself further.

JI: There’s this accusation that he’s flying solo, that he maybe has one or two advisers that he trusts and he makes decisions on his own. What do you make of that?

AH: First of all, you hear the voices within the war cabinet. Historically, prime ministers are the ones that make the decisions. It’s not unique to now…Leaders are supposed to lead and that means not everything is a group decision. I think that’s normal.

Netanyahu has a minister within the war cabinet, Ron Dermer, who is not just another minister. He is [Netanyahu’s] closest confidante, his partner, someone who he trusts completely and trusts his judgment. I do think that when you look at Ron playing that role, in addition to being a minister, and joined by Tzachi Hanegbi at the National Security Council, he does have some people to bounce ideas off of and to consult with.

But there’s no question that if you look back to the days that I was in office, there was a larger group of individuals that he counted on and trusted.

JI: Do you think Dermer has a political future? Netanyahu at one point thought so.

AH: For the sake of the State of Israel, I hope that he does. I think Ron is a great Zionist, a great mind and a great asset for the State of Israel. He’s not a politician in the normal sense of the word, so he’s not going to compete in the Likud primaries at any point. But I do hope that once this is all said and done that he does find his way back into a position of leadership, whether it’s immediately or at some point in the future.

JI: Do you think he’s too strongly identified with Netanyahu?

AH: He is, but he’s also very well respected not just by Netanyahu, but by others from other parties. He’s a true professional and a true Zionist, and I think that we need people like him.

JI: What’s next for you?
AH: My goal in life, my passion in life has always been to do whatever I can for the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and that has not changed. If anything, it’s expanded since Oct. 7. I think that the country is at a point where we really need to work diligently to keep the unity that we have today in place. We need to find a way to debate but work together. The threats that we face are just as significant, if not more significant, than before and any way that I can be of help to our leaders, I’m happy to do.

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