It is impossible to avoid condemning without hesitation the wanton murder of Israeli children, women and men by Hamas in their attack on Israel from Gaza begun last Saturday, with more than 1200 Israelis killed, 2400 wounded and 150 taken hostage in a terrorist act with a brutality against civilians shocking to all. It is no doubt too early to fully draw conclusions about the impact of this action, it clearly will be major, but we can already draw some preliminary lessons.
The Gaza Strip, the small 365 square kilometer area with a population of more than 2 million Palestinians that has been governed by Hamas since 2007, is blockaded by Israel, which considers it “enemy territory”. It is more carefully watched over and controlled than any area in the entire world. Israeli drones and satellites record every movement in the territory, the most sophisticated detection instruments listen to every conversation and electronic transmission, and yet the attack was a total surprise to Israel. How could one of the best intelligence forces and armies in the world be caught so completely off guard? The myth of Israeli inviolability is shattered. It is the second major misjudgment of military capabilities in recent times – after the spectacular but totally unexpected failure of the vaunted Russian army to overtake Ukraine in February 2022 – and it suggests on the one hand that evaluations of military competence may be much more difficult than is generally recognized, and on the other hand that a smaller but well-organized force can wreak considerable harm, irrespective of the power, strength and reputation of the opponent.
The Israel intelligence community, its army and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – he who had claimed to be the only person that could guarantee Israel’s security – have been humiliated, a blatant humiliation for all the world to see. Hamas’ attack has been called a “9/11” moment for Israel, compared to the attacks on the Twin Towers in the US in 2001. Sadly, the comparison is likely to prove valid, human nature does not change, humiliation of politicians in position of considerable power generally leads to irrational and excessive reactions. We can remember that President George W Bush’s reaction to 9/11 was to launch an unjustified and devastating war on Iraq. Of course after the carnage caused by Hamas, Netanyahu has no choice but to respond with overwhelming force. He has promised “mighty revenge”, to “destroy” Hamas, to “reduce Gaza to rubble”. But the Israeli army will have to deal with the difficult challenge of meeting these objectives while seeking to avoid endangering the lives of more than 150 Israeli hostages Hamas claims to hold, and if Netanyahu’s actions cause the death of a large number of civilians in Gaza, the world will question the rationality of Netanyahu’s revenge.
Netanyahu’s failure to anticipate Hamas’ devastating attacks is a blatant sign of weakness, he has focused on his project to reduce Israeli judicial independence while incorrectly assuming there was little risk in ignoring the plight of Palestinians, a subject that he has succeeded in removing from the international agenda, just as he has buried the prospects of UN-approved two state solutions to resolve the seemingly eternal conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. For the time being, it is normal that all Israelis and many around the world rally around Netanyahu and his Government in their moment of crisis, just as the world rallied to the US immediately after 9/11. But the Hamas attack raises fundamental issues, both with regard to the government of Netanyahu and the state of Israel, as pointed out by Roger Cohen in an article in the NY Times in which he quotes Danny Yatom, director of Israeli Intelligence in the late 1990’s, who correctly in my view predicted that “A single Israeli state between the sea and Jordan, encompassing the West Bank ‘will deteriorate into either an apartheid state or a non-Jewish state,’ Mr. Yatom said. ‘If we continue to rule the territories, I see that as an existential danger.’ ” Hamas’ vicious attack raises the basic question of Israel’s treatment of its indigenous Palestinian population. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 eventually led to a right-wing shift in Israeli politics, from Labor to Likud. Will this cataclysmic event have a comparable impact in Israel, leading to the political demise of Netanyahu and right-wing Governments? Is there a prospect that the two-state solution can rise from the ashes of this conflagration? I personally hope so.
The role of the US is always important to Israel, and the Biden Administration has predictably shown strong, unwavering support for Israel in the face of this brutal terrorist attack, with the US accelerating its military aid to Israel. On this subject, Hamas has succeeded in unifying America’s fractious politicians. Will they remain so? It will depend on Israel’s actions, but although the left wing of the Democratic Party may waver – the Democrats hate Netanyahu’s overt flirting with Trump and the right wing of the Republican Party – and although the Biden Administration would prefer not to have to get once again involved in the Middle East, I think the US will not hesitate to help to the maximum possible, short of directly putting US troops on the ground, its only democratic ally in the Middle East: America will continue to actively support and aid Israel. America’s other priority is to limit the spread of the conflict, a major risk for Israel as well as for the entire Middle East. Current indications are that neither Iran nor Hezbollah nor the Palestinian Authority are seeking to take advantage of the Hamas attack, but if Hezbollah for example considers Israel’s forthcoming military campaign against Hamas falters, they may well want to seize the opportunity to open a second front, presaging a risky broadening of the conflict.
Will the Hamas/Israeli conflict have a significant impact on the US Presidential election? It is too early to tell, but if, as is likely, the conflict between Israel and Hamas lasts many months, it clearly places foreign policy in the center of the election agenda, an area of strength for Biden – he can present himself as the forceful defender of Israel – and it probably can help Nikki Haley on the Republican side to distinguish herself from her rivals. But Americans tire quickly of wars, a continued commitment to Israel will make it difficult to maintain full support for Ukraine, and the electorate could turn against the incumbent administration, blaming Biden for the mess in the world and in that case attracted to Trump’s “American First”, isolationist approach.
What will be some other consequences of the terrorist attack and subsequent Israel reaction? It will delay, for quite some time, the prospect of any overall agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both Biden and Netanyahu had pushed for. And the uncertainty in the Middle East will in the short term boost the price of oil, but I suspect this will not change the fundamental equilibrium in oil markets.
This new, additional war, will also contribute to the debate of declining power of the US, following on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, China’s increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan, India’s growing extreme nationalism, the world seems to be reeling towards more generalized anarchy. I share the view of many that we are in a period of fundamental transition, from a world dominated by two superpowers during the Cold War to a brief period where one superpower, the US, was clearly dominant, to an evolving multi-polar world of more diffuse centers of power, regionally and internationally. Although we do not yet understand the consequences, in the short term it appears the central characteristic of this uncertain period of transition is a high degree of chaos that each of the major centers of power is going to have to learn to live with.
 “A Shaken Israel is Forced Back to Its Eternal Dilemma”, NY Times, October 8, 2023