Ari Heistein

Clarity in crisis: What Israel now knows

October 7 calls for a reset of ties, whether bilaterally with the US, internally, regionally or between Israel and the diaspora
Rockets are fired toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, October 8, 2023. (AP Photo/ Fatima Shbair)
Rockets are fired toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, October 8, 2023. (AP Photo/ Fatima Shbair)

October 7th 2023 witnessed the bloodiest day in Israel’s history, with hundreds of women, children, and elderly Israeli civilians slaughtered with unspeakable brutality. This attack was previously inconceivable because it did not comport with Israel’s strategic conception of Hamas as a group moderated by its hold on power.

While this event has left Israelis with questions over the army and government’s response to the attacks, this is also a clarifying moment on older matters of contention in Israel’s strategic environment.

In the international arena, Israel gained concrete insight into the nature of its relationships with the great powers. The primacy of the US-Israel relationship should have always been clear to most keen observers of foreign and national security affairs. Yet some Israeli politicians have recently flirted with the idea that relationships with China and Russia should be maintained and expanded either to counter perceived U.S. decline or to extract concessions from Washington, even at the expense of angering the White House and the Hill.

The US sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Israel-Lebanon border and President Biden’s warning to Hezbollah and Iran, “don’t [get involved,]” was an unmistakable reminder that Israel’s best and more important partner is the US. The UK, France, Germany and a host of other Western allies have since followed America’s lead.

Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow have yet to even condemn Hamas for its brutal murder of Israeli civilians, let alone take action to support Israel’s self-defense. Any belief in the need for “balance” between the great powers should now be dead in the water. 

A political realignment may also be due in Israeli domestic politics. Throughout the protests against the judicial reforms, Israel’s far-right politicians and influencers bashed the country’s former defense officials who identified with the center-left political opposition. When the shooting started, members of Netanyahu’s coalition all but disappeared from public view and most did not visit the war zone or the wounded for several days.

In contrast, some of those same generals from center-left opposition risked their own lives in heroic attempts to save countless others as soon as the attack started. The distinction between being a provocateur and a leader is likely much clearer to the public, and there are indications that this will impact the Israeli political arena accordingly. 

In spite of the changes to the face of the Middle East brought about by the Abraham Accords, the costs of kicking the can down the road on the issue of Hamas are now far more evident. Throughout Netanyahu’s tenure, Israel sought to minimize military conflicts with its neighbors and focus on building up the country’s economic and diplomatic power.

This approach ushered in an era of unparalleled economic prosperity for the country. At the same time, it is now apparent that there are no free lunches. Israel’s prioritization of quiet over security led it to avoid addressing adversaries’ military buildups and to cede the initiative to its enemies. A rebalanced approach is in order. 

The events of the past few weeks have also served as a reminder that Israelis are in this together, despite our political differences. All Israelis now understand that the era of enemies seeking to murder every man, woman, and child is not a historical memory but a current reality. This is true despite many years of deceptively quiet borders. 

In light of the intentions and capabilities of neighboring hostile entities, there is a realization that “we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” This has created a previously unimaginable sense of social cohesion just after Israel was at a historic low point marked by societal division that included acts of political violence.  

Finally, this war has reinvigorated the relationship between Israel and the diaspora after years of infighting. American Jews have mobilized quickly to support Israel in a variety of ways, and some of their neighbors have helped remind them why it is so important to have a Jewish homeland after all. 

Protestors have not only demonstrated that they support the Palestinian right to self-determination, which is a legitimate political opinion, but some have cheered on savage murderers. To be clear, this is not so much a pro-Palestinian position (it is, after all, difficult to see how committing atrocities against civilians would advance the Palestinian cause) as much as it betrays a radical hostility to Israel and Jews. After years of complaints that the American left had become an intolerant and radical place, that is now on full public display. Expect a political realignment of the American Jewish center-left based on the reactions to October 7th

The clarity this moment provides is significant, if only partial. Crises often bring out one’s true character, for better and for worse, and the Israel-Hamas war is illuminating because of that. How things will develop on the battlefield remains yet to be seen, but after awakening Israel’s existential angst, Hamas and any other involved parties can now expect that the response will be powerful and unrelenting.

About the Author
Ari Heistein was chief of staff and a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). He works in defense technology and has published extensive research on Yemen.
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