“How could this happen?” we asked one another, neighbors in pajamas suddenly gathered in the not quite safety of the stairwell of our Jerusalem apartment building. Our first air-raid siren of the new war had just sounded. It was early on a holiday morning; I’d heard no news. In a jittery loud voice, a man from across the hall told about us the Hamas invasion of Israel that had just begun.
That moment repeats on a loop in my mind — when I wake up at night and when the sirens repeat. A century has passed since then and no time at all. The news comes in jagged pieces that one’s mind cannot fit together: The rave in the countryside, where Hamas men hunted down and slaughtered young Israelis. Hamas’s taking grandmothers and young children as hostages and butchering families. And our army, on which we relied, in disarray, taking three days to regain control of the area bordering Gaza. More than a week later, the unfathomable counting of bodies and attempting to identify them continues. “How did this happen?” echoes in every conversation. The reflexive answer is that Hamas is barbaric — and that it opposes not the occupation but our very existence here.
This is true — and insufficient. For an Israeli, the real heart of the question is: Who allowed this to happen? Despite the agony, because of it, we must demand a national accounting for what made the military disaster possible: the hubris and complacency and, most of all, the delusions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.
Mr. Netanyahu has been prime minister for 13 of the past 14 years. While thehead of the Shin Bet security serviceand the commander of military intelligence have publicly taken responsibility, the prime minister has glaringly failed to do so. But if the army and country were unprepared for the Hamas invasion — as they clearly were —- there is no place else for the buck to stop.
Mr. Netanyahu’s latest government came to power just over nine months ago. It’s the most extreme he has led, because only extreme parties were willing to join a coalition with a prime minister on trial for corruption. His own Likud has become a party of lackeys; experienced politicians critical of him abandoned it.
The government’s agenda — what appears to be virtually its only concern — has been funneling money to ultra-Orthodox schools, supporting West Bank settlement and, most of all, pushing through radical changes to the judicial system that would protect Mr. Netanyahu and the right’s hold on power. The attention of the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right politician known for his openly racist views, is divided between two jobs: While he occupies one of the most demanding roles in government, he also oversees settlement in the Defense Ministry.
The security cabinet, responsible for directing the military, has met only sporadically. In July the military chief of staff, Gen. Herzi Halevi, was reportedly unable to get a meeting with Mr. Netanyahu. Instead the general wrote the prime minister a letter, with a warning of danger to the army’s internal cohesion — apparently owing to the government’s judicial program. But whether he was distracted by his trial and immense public opposition to his plans or was overconfident in Israel’s advantage over its enemies, Mr. Netanyahu clearly wasn’t paying close attention to security this year.
Blindness to the danger from Gaza has a longer history, though, and is rooted in a strategic choice that has guided Mr. Netanyahu since his return to power in 2009. (He first held office from 1996 to 1999.) Nearly two years before, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, splitting the nascent Palestinian polity in two. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Fatah movement retained their limited power in autonomous areas of the West Bank. Though Mr. Abbas has never reached a two-state agreement with Israel, he has consistently favored that outcome.
Mr. Netanyahu clearly chose to see the split as positive, as a way to foster Gaza’s independence from the West Bank and to weaken the Palestinian Authority. In 2019, for instance, he explained why he allowed the Hamas regime in Gaza to be propped up with cash from Qatar rather than have it depend on a financial umbilical cord to the West Bank. He told Likud lawmakers that “whoever is against a Palestinian state should be for” the Qatari funding, as paraphrased by a source who was present. Given Hamas’s rejection of Israel’s existence and the lack of a single Palestinian voice, a two-state agreement seemed impossible — allowing Israel to go on ruling the West Bank, as Mr. Netanyahu clearly prefers.
That view is widely shared on the Israel right. In a 2015 interview Mr. Smotrich argued that Palestinian terrorist attacks at the time were mostly isolated and “atmospheric” — in other words, political theater but not a strategic danger. The real threat, he said, was on the diplomatic front from Mr. Abbas. For Israel, he concluded, “the Palestinian Authority is a burden, and Hamas is an asset.”
That’s why, despite the regular rounds of fighting between Israel and Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu allowed Hamas to continue entrenching its rule. Reconquering Gaza, I stress, was never a practical or moral option, and Israel’s ability to push for Palestinian reunification had limits. But under Mr. Netanyahu, the country evaded opportunities to do so when Hamas was isolated and weak. Bringing Gaza back under the Palestinian Authority was apparently never part of the prime minister’s agenda. Hamas was the enemy and, in a bizarre twist, an ally against the threat of diplomacy, a two-state solution and peace.
That policy, it turns out, depended on overconfidence and self-deception. It required believing that Hamas had been deterred from a major offensive by previous fighting and that it was more interested in improving conditions in Gaza. Those convenient views apparently seeped from the political leaders to the military brass. Such complacency reportedly made it possible to move some of its forces from the area around Gaza to the West Bank to protect settlers, leaving border communities less protected when the attack came.
When the almost inevitable commission of inquiry examines the failure of Israeli intelligence to foresee the Hamas attack, it’s likely to find a terrifying echo of the Israeli intelligence failure before the 1973 Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack that began the Yom Kippur war: The clues were there but were misread or ignored because they did not fit preconceptions. Fifty years ago, the overriding strategic mistake was believing that Israel was safer holding the Sinai Peninsula than making peace with Egypt. Over 2,600 Israeli soldiers paid for that misconception with their lives.
The present-day mistake rested on greater hubris: believing that Hamas could be safely managed in order to maintain and deepen occupation of the West Bank indefinitely. Add the government’s manifest neglect of security, and the result was catastrophe.Despite the devastating crisis, Mr. Netanyahu remains aloof and his government dysfunctional, even after bringing one opposition party to his coalition. It took the prime minister more than a week to meet with families of Israelis abducted to Gaza — and as much time for the government to begin the evacuation of the battle-ravaged town of Sderot.
A neighbor has left for reserve duty. My daughter texts me to say she is safe after yet another missile alert in Tel Aviv. Down the street, a family is sitting shiva for a soldier killed in the south. None of this had to happen. It was not a freak natural disaster. Mr. Netanyahu has failed and must be replaced, along with his policies — the quicker the better.
Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli journalist and historian. His most recent book is “War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis From the Middle East.”
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