TEL AVIV, Israel _ Israelis marked the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war in recent weeks with much agonizing over the collapse of the ill-fated so-called “conception” that the Arabs would not dare attack, as Egypt and Syria did. Almost a half century to the day since that mistake comes the fall of an equally foolish idea: that Gaza can be blockaded and contained, cut off from Israel by a security fence while its people are hemmed in and left to be ruled by terrorist groups.
That conception shattered above my head on Saturday, Oct. 7, when I was awoken by rocket fire over central Tel Aviv, with the Iron Dome system zapping the incoming missiles out of the sky, leaving debris to rain down on nearby streets.
The Gaza conception featured two corollaries as well: that the West Bank Palestinians can be provoked with impunity by Israel’s reckless government, and that Saudi Arabia will eventually make peace with Israel without the Palestinian issue being addressed—leaving the Palestinians an irrelevant player in the Middle East equation.
It turned out that on the day of their choosing, hundreds of armed Hamas fighters simply cut through the fence between Gaza and Israel and were able to roam free in nearby communities, killing and kidnapping civilians and initially facing almost no military opposition. The shock in Israel is so great that there is a chance that this event will end the 16 years of strategic paralysis that began when Hamas threw the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in 2007. And all of a sudden the Palestinians are relevant again.
At this writing, it looks like Israel has suffered more than 100 civilians killed, more than 1,000 wounded, and an unknown but considerable number abducted. The latter sets up a likely prolonged drama featuring threatened executions and negotiations for prisoner swaps, where Israel has a history of eventually paying a very high price.
It is a spectacular failure on multiple fronts: tactically, it’s clear there was no sufficient plan to defend the border towns and kibbutzim on the Israeli side of the border; intelligence-wise, it’s clear that Israel did not know—as hundreds of operatives inside Gaza must have—that the attack was coming. That will badly rattle the vaunted Shin Bet security service.
And strategically, the whole edifice of the policy toward Gaza has led to a genuine disaster.
Was it hastened by the poisonous political divisions in Israel? Is that why Hamas chose to attack? And was Israel’s apparent lack of preparedness somehow caused or exacerbated by the internal schism? These questions may not be answerable anytime soon, but what is clear is that Israel is currently led by a spectacularly incompetent far-right government, run by a criminal defendant to boot.
Tragically, barring the quick establishment of a national unity government, it is this motley crew that must now decide on the reaction. The challenge is this: The attacks have created a psychology of transformation, and a genuine sense that there can be no return to the status quo ante; but the actual options on the ground remain as unpalatable as they were before.
For Israel’s response to be truly different from its policy to date, it would mean occupying the Gaza Strip and removing Hamas from power—presumably to reinstall the Palestinian Authority. This would involve street-by-street fighting by Israeli soldiers against a force of tens of thousands that is armed to the teeth, led by gangsters and fanatics, who are absolutely ruthless about putting civilians in harm’s way. Israel can expect considerable losses on all sides that would probably dwarf what happened on Saturday. It also risks executions of the hostages held in Gaza.
Israel also has the option of repeating its previous strategy of bombardment of Gaza, this time demanding a return of the hostages as opposed to the end of rocket fire (though that too will surely come). That might include pinpoint assassinations of Hamas leaders—but again, the hostages are a complicating factor.
Any operation that lasts long risks expanding in three directions: Hezbollah could join in, firing rockets at Israel from Lebanon and dragging that country into the war; the Palestinians in the West Bank could start a new intifada; and there is a chance, in some ways Israel’s worst-case scenario, that extremists among Israel’s Arab citizens will join in as well, setting fire to Israel’s streets.
Any one of these scenarios could be a game-changer in Israeli politics, even though of course for the moment everyone will claim politics are not a factor.
On one hand, the attack is a chance for a much-needed reboot for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has managed to make itself extremely unpopular. It is not just that proposals to annihilate judicial independence and to remove many of the freedoms Israelis take for granted have hurt the economy—but that it has promised its Haredi allies to pass a law formally exempting Haredi youth from the military, which will enrage the vast majority of Israelis. Applying the normal calculus of Israeli politics, war could be just what Netanyahu needs to reshuffle the deck and somehow survive this episode as well. In any case, security crises usually help the right.
But this may be different. It is hard to see how Netanyahu escapes the judgement that his government—brimming as it is with ex-cons, fanatics and petty apparatchiks—fell asleep on its watch. It devoted all its energies to trying to install authoritarian rule at huge cost to social cohesion and the economy. It is not inconceivable that the dimensions of the failure will compel a certain return to respect for expertise, and some reluctance for voting for incompetents—not just in Israel, but in other countries as well. But that’s for the next election.
Right now, a possible outcome is a reshuffle leading to a centrist “national unity government” replacing Netanyahu’s far-right allies with moderate factors. The opposition leader has already proposed it, and such is the trepidation in the country that this was not seen, as it normally would have been, as a cynical ploy.
Meanwhile, it should surprise no one if Netanyahu sticks with his current assemblage. Its judicial overhaul may be critical to keeping him out of jail. Instead, he might choose to exploit the intelligence failure and move to replace the heads of the security branches; they are all accomplished professionals and therefore almost by definition opponents of his government’s policies, especially his authoritarian overhaul. He would seek to replace them with loyalists, causing Israel yet more damage but accumulating more power for himself. That is not the Israel its friends abroad admire, but anyone who would be surprised is deluded and out of date.
At the end of the day, though, the situation in Gaza is simply not tenable: Two million people with no natural resources, intermittent electricity, no free trade with the world, and no way out by land, air, or sea. Make no mistake: Hamas is a criminal organization that seeks only war with Israel and cares not a fig for the people under its boot. But Israel’s policy of trying to smoke Hamas out by putting pressure on the population was never going to lead to good things. It is, without doubt, time for a new “conception.”
Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at danperry.substack.com.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.