A shaken Israel is forced back to its eternal dilemma
By Roger Cohen
The most sweeping invasion of Israeli territory in decades, conducted by a Hamas force that had been widely seen as a ragtag collection of militants, has delivered a psychological shock to Israel so great that its very foundations are being questioned: its army, its intelligence services, its government and its capacity to control the millions of Palestinians in its midst.
The war that began with a Hamas assault that has taken as many as 700 Israeli lives is not an existential struggle for the survival of the Israeli state itself, as were the 1948 war triggered by Israel’s foundation or the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But 75 years, and a half-century, respectively, from those conflicts, the sight of villages once again overrun, hostages seized and desperate civilians being killed by Palestinian militants has awakened a kind of primal dread.
“Israelis are shaken to the core,” said Yuval Shany, a professor of international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “There is outrage at Hamas, but also at the political and military leadership that allowed this to happen. You would expect a state this strong to prevent such things, yet 75 years from Israel’s creation the government has failed in its principal responsibility: the protection of the lives of its citizens.”
As with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, disbelief has mingled with anger at a colossal intelligence failure.
In 1973, the assumption was that after Israel’s lightning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Syria and Egypt were spent forces. Today, the belief had grown that Hamas was uninterested in large-scale violence and that it could even be a useful vehicle for weakening the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, thus burying talk of a Palestinian state.
“The fact that we were allowing the most extreme Palestinian elements to grow stronger was overlooked, and Israel was revealed as totally unprepared, strategically and operationally,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist in Jerusalem.
A page has been turned, whatever the outcome of the war that has just begun. Israel has not, after all, moved beyond the conflict that has haunted it since the creation of the modern state in 1948: the claims of two peoples, Jewish and Palestinian, to the same narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Its wealth, vibrant startup culture and increasing acceptance in the Middle East could not forever mask a fundamental Israeli instability. Now the shock to its self-image is so great that, after the initial rallying to the flag, Israel could be projected into a period of profound social and political turbulence.
Certainly, heady talk of a transformative normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, brokered by the Biden administration, seems optimistic as a result of the Hamas attack.
This blow to Israel comes at a time of deep internal unease. Dismay that the Israel Defense Forces, the revered institution at the core of the nation’s security, could allow such a multipronged Palestinian assault to happen — and then appear slow to react — has been compounded by a widespread sense that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fatally distracted.
Its focus on a fiercely contested judicial overhaul that would weaken the independence of the judiciary, and so compromise democratic checks and balances, appeared to leave the situation in Gaza as a low priority.
Such were the Israeli protests against the government program that the military had to deal with more than 10,000 reservists threatening to refuse service, a major distraction. There have been no such threats since the Hamas attack. Distracting, too, were the wild settler projects in the West Bank backed by hard-right government ministers.
“The government was fixated with a plan that had nothing to do with national security,” Shany said. “There is a clear link between that and the dismal Israeli performance. It does not look good for Mr. Netanyahu.”
The Yom Kippur war, an equally profound psychological shock for Israel, did not immediately turn national politics on its head. But within four years, in 1977, the Labor government that had run Israel since its foundation was defeated, a right-wing Likud government took power with a landslide victory, and Labor has scarcely recovered in the almost five decades since.
Certainly, Netanyahu’s right-wing government appears to be in a deep hole, facing agonizing decisions over how sweeping the Israeli retaliation in Gaza should be. Gaza, controlled by Hamas, which the United States identifies as a terrorist organization, has long seethed in an overcrowded state of poverty and resentment, under a 16-year Israeli blockade.
For many years the assumption had grown within Israel that the Palestinian question had become a nonissue and that a policy of tactical procrastination, as Israeli settlements in the West Bank grew ever larger, would ensure that no Palestinian state ever came into being.
The conflict became “the situation,” a bland term expressing a combustible status quo. Netanyahu emerged as the champion of a kick-the-can-down-the-road approach that left the two-state idea on life support. Israel normalized relations with several smaller Arab states. The Palestinian issue all but disappeared from the global agenda. There was talk of a new Middle East.
All this, however, could not hide the elephant in the room: the growing Palestinian fury at humiliation and marginalization that had led to a spike in West Bank violence this year.
The status quo was never really that. It incubated bloodshed by institutionalizing the steady advance of Israeli control over the more than 2.6 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Israel’s stranglehold on encircled Gaza, where another estimated 2.1 million Palestinians live.
In a recorded message, Muhammad Deif, leader of Hamas’ military wing, described the objective of the “operation” as ensuring that “the enemy will understand that the time of their rampaging without accountability has ended.” The statement was clearly intended to rouse Palestinians from their acquiescence to powerlessness in Gaza and the West Bank.
But the cost for both sides could be very high. The operation showed the world that, as Avineri put it, “Every Israeli Jew is, for Hamas, a legitimate target for killing.” That will not help the broader Palestinian cause with Western governments.
Netanyahu has promised a “long and difficult war” now entering an “offensive phase, which will continue with neither limitations nor respite until the objectives are achieved.” Already more than 350 Palestinians have been killed.
The temptation is clearly strong for an overwhelming Israeli offensive to make sure Hamas is never again able to mount such an operation. A model could be the massive 2006 offensive in southern Lebanon; since then the border has been relatively quiet, although Hezbollah fired artillery shells Sunday on three Israeli posts in the contested Shebaa Farms area.
But in Gaza, the presence of perhaps dozens of Israeli hostages seized by Hamas is a deeply complicating factor. Israel does not abandon its own. Executions of hostages in response to an Israeli assault would become an explosive domestic political issue. After what looks like a serious blunder, Netanyahu faces one of his most delicate challenges.
“Issues of international law are certain to arise, around proportionality and collateral damage,” Shany said about the looming Israeli offensive, referring to legal restraints on the use of military force. “But the political interest in restraint is very limited. This will be a serious test for Israel.”