Fifty years after the 1973 (Yom Kippur) War, Israel has been surprised again by the Arabs. This time, the assault was carried out not by the regular armies of two strong neighbors—Egypt and Syria—but by the irregular forces of the Gaza-based Islamist organization Hamas. By the time of writing, it looks as if over 1,200 Israeli civilians, soldiers and policemen lost their lives and over 3,000 people were injured in the surprise attack. The event can already be described as the biggest intelligence blunder in the 75-year history of Israel and a major trauma for the Israeli society.
This attack on innocent civilians—many of them women, children and elderly men—should be universally condemned as barbaric in character and as illegal by the standards of international law. It was identified as such by the vast majority of world public opinion, particularly in all Western democratic countries. Most importantly, Israel has received the support of the President of the United States and that of a unified American Congress. But, beyond the fully-justified outrage in response to a blatant terrorist attack and the Israeli determination to punish the perpetrators—especially Hamas leadership—there is a series of questions that needs to be addressed: (1) What brought about the attack? (2) What should be the right response to it? and (3) What are the deeper, long-term lessons to be learned from this painful experience and its implications?
The Causes of Hamas’ Attack
The deep roots of the October 7th assault are to be found in the failure of the Middle Eastern peace process, a failure that has created a huge reservoir of frustrations among many, particularly on the Arab side and especially among the two million Gazans that Hamas has ruled since 2006. The Hamas leadership has the primary responsibility for the brutal attack and Hamas fighters must be condemned in the strongest possible language for carrying out the attack. Yet, political leaders in Israel who have opposed any and all steps designed to peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, must be held at least partially responsible for the continuation of bloodshed in this seemingly endless conflict.
Among the Israeli leaders who should be held to account there is the longest-serving prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. In a political career lasting over 30 years, Netanyahu has dedicated all of his considerable talents to derailing any and all efforts designed to bring about a peaceful resolution of the bloody conflict. Maintaining a situation of “No Peace” for a long time, accompanied by deepening occupation and creeping annexation, does not only make violence possible, it invites it. Appointing someone like Betzalel Smotrich, the leader of the radical settlers, as the minister in charge of the civil administration in the “Territories” is nothing short of a purposeful provocation.
Over the last few years, Netanyahu has focused closely on his own substantial legal problems; he has been indicted by Israel’s legal authorities for fraud, accepting bribes and breach of trust. His personal legal problems have prevented the beleaguered Prime Minister from focusing on the country’s substantial security challenges. To secure his leadership in face of both strong political opposition (including some of his erstwhile allies) and the courtroom prosecutors, Netanyahu has established after the November 2022 election the most nationalist, expansionist rightwing government in Israel’s history. Furthermore, to solidify the Right’s rule and win his legal battles, he initiated “a judicial reform” that most Israelis and almost all international observers have perceived as a blatant attempt to perpetuate his and the Right’s rule through an anti-democratic coup. Unprecedented demonstrations all over Israel erupted in response to the “judicial reform”, leading large number of Israelis to refuse to serve in Israel Defense Forces, again an unprecedented phenomenon. This process has created the impression that the country was deeply disunited, as indeed it was. It is highly possible that Hamas’ brazen assault was an attempt by Israel’s enemies to use an opportunity against a country with reputation for unity and resolve, particularly on all matters related to defense and security.
Responding to Hamas’ Attack
Having committed the atrocious attack against a defenseless civilian population, the attack of Hamas must not only be repelled, but those involved in it in any capacity—ordering it, planning it, financing it, and carrying it out—should be severely punished. The Israeli operations against Hamas in Gaza, in effect a war by a sovereign state against a de facto independent governmental unit (although not a sovereign state)—are legal activities, strongly supported by the international community.
If the Hamas leadership in Gaza is removed at the end of the Israeli operations there, as indeed it should, the Gaza Strip should be placed, again, under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), a recognized international actor since 1994. The PA, could and should initiate an internationally supported and financed program for long-term economic development of the Gaza Strip. It is a Palestinian-inhabited area which lags substantially behind the West Bank and, of course, Israel itself. Gaza’s access to the Mediterranean Sea gives it not only some advantages over the West Bank (such as a sea-port and a fishing community), but makes it an attractive area for close cooperation with the much larger West Bank.
Equally important, once the military operations are over, there should be a return of Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. The repeated military confrontations between Israel and Gaza are but the last piece of evidence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has no military solution, only a political one. While “Oslo” died as a political process—killed by radical Israelis and Palestinians—it has never died as an idea, the idea of the two-state solution.
Although the Israeli political system under Netanyahu’s leadership has been moving toward the annexationist right, the polls until the fateful date of October 7, 2023—the day of the recent Hamas invasion—have shown a clear majority of the Center-Left and moderate Right over radical rightwing Likudniks and their messianic religious/Haredi allies. The Territorial Compromise camp is still larger than the Annexationist camp. Most importantly, the failures of the current government have been so obvious—particularly in “managing” the relationships with the Palestinians—that solidifying the moderate camp is possible, although it will not be easy.
Once the protests against the government resume—as they must because Netanyahu did not commit his government to halt the “reform”—it will be necessary, indeed essential, to move the topic of the occupation from the peripheral sidebar to the center. Without a focus on the occupation, Israel’s relations with the Palestinians in- and out-of-Israel will continue to deteriorate, along with the overall domestic situation in Israel.
The Bigger Implications of the Hamas Assault
Admittedly, it is difficult to find anything good about the unspeakable brutality of the Hamas assault and, yet, the event may still prove to have positive long-term consequences in Israel. The invasion by Hamas has demonstrated the weakness of what might be called “Bibism”, the general ideology and the modus operandi of Benjamin Netanyahu. The Hamas invasion has also demonstrated the weaknesses of some of Israel’s most revered institutions, especially the IDF, Israel Defense Force. But, furthermore, the event has shown the weakness of the State itself. The citizens in the northern Negev felt abandoned, because they were abandoned. The feeling that Israel guaranteed the safety of Jews—its main raison d’etre—proved an empty hope or at least a highly exaggerated hope.
These dramatic, profound consequences might suggest that a time for reorganization and possibly even reimagining Israel has arrived. What forms this will take is still very much up for grabs, formless, and undefined. But here are some preliminary ideas. First on the agenda should be a renewal of the mature, serious dialogue with the Palestinian Authority on a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. The political career of Netanyahu between 1993 (when he became Likud leader) and 2023 (when his leadership proved bankrupt) was about destroying “Oslo” and its promise of such a negotiated settlement. If and when Netanyahu’s political career ends, the green light for “a revived Oslo” ought to be given.
The second item on a future agenda should be a redefinition of the domestic Jewish-Arab relations. Under Netanyahu, the Knesset passed the controversial Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, establishing a complete Jewish hegemony in a bi-national Israeli society. Interestingly, before Netanyahu returned to power in late 2022, the Bennet/Lapid government included, for the first time, an Arab party. It was an experiment that proved that Jews and Arabs (21% of all Israelis) can and should share power. This experiment has shown the way of a possible future for post-Netanyahu Israel.
The third item should be the adoption of a constitution, a commitment of the State of Israel since 1948! The proposal of “judicial reform” by the Netanyahu government—in effect, a power grab by Netanyahu and his associates (mostly Religious Zionists and Haredim)—has shown that in the absence of a written constitution the State of Israel could easily go through a “democratic backsliding” like Hungary & Poland have.
The fourth item should be a redefinition of the religious issue in Israel. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has adopted, in effect, the Ottoman Millet System, transferring all matters of “personal status” as well as education and other matters to the control of religious authorities. Furthermore, when it comes to Jews, all “religious” issues have been transferred to the hands of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. This is a uniquely bad arrangement, without precedent in any of the world’s democracies.
If the systemic shock of October 2023 will start the State of Israel on the route of dealing creatively and decisively with at least some of those heavy matters, then the sacrifice of so many lives of innocent Israelis will not have been in vain.