More than three weeks after the October 7 massacre in Israel, the sheer brutality, the scale of the carnage and the colossal intelligence, military and policy failures are still hard to fathom. Over 100 victims have yet to be identified – because their bodies have been so badly mutilated. For yet another look into how horrible these atrocities were, see this video containing Hamas’s own footage of the attacks, released by the IDF.
October 7 was not just a terrorist attack or war crime – but a foray to genocide and a crime against humanity. Those who know history know the meaning of Never Again; those with a clear moral compass understand why this must be a Never Again war.
Whether Hamas can fully be destroyed is unknown, but Israel’s limited goals include crushing its military capabilities and removing its hold over Gaza. This involves targeting Hamas’ senior leadership, eliminating its rocket arsenal and weapons production, and ceasing the flow of money from across the region that has enabled it to reconstitute after each round of conflict. Israel has been wise to slow roll the ground invasion and heed US advice on lessons learned from the Iraq War. After all, the United States did not destroy either Al Qaeda or ISIS, but degraded them mercilessly over many years. Israeli deterrence has already been badly harmed, and must be restored, both for its security and to prevent a wider regional war.
But Hamas is also an idea, and achieving victory over it requires abandoning some of the worst ideas that have taken hold in Israel and in the West. There are four illusions in particular which created some of the conditions for this disaster, and which I hope will become permanent casualties of this conflict, along with every planner and perpetrator of October 7:
The first illusion, shockingly, was the “concept” that Israel could co-exist with Hamas and appease jihadism. Over the past several years, the belief took hold that Israel had reached some kind of a detente with Hamas. The organization was seemingly more interested in governing rather than fighting and was placated by Israel allowing it access to funds and Gazan Palestinians to work in Israel. This was magical thinking by the Netanyahu government, obsessed with a failed strategy to divide the Palestinians, and was a catastrophic misinterpretation by Israel’s security establishment, the worst kind of confirmation bias. Hamas abstained from Israel’s skirmishes with other Palestinian groups over the last 24 months, and the flawed conclusion was that this represented a permanent change in the organization, rather than merely a cunning tactic. That is the mistake of looking at calm waters and assuming they are coming after – but not before – the storm.
This is not Monday morning quarterbacking: Hamas’ intent was always hiding in plain sight. Hamas is not a liberation movement, but a theocratic and fascist organization, spawned from the same Muslim Brotherhood where Al Qaeda and ISIS have their origins. Since its inception, Hamas has never wavered from its charter: “There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.” During the Oslo peace process and peaking in the second intifada, Hamas perfected the use of suicide bombings, always with the goal of killing as many Israeli civilians as possible and eroding support for moderates on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. In the time since Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally in 2005, Hamas harnessed nearly all its resources for war against Israel instead of civilian infrastructure and governance – instigating now five major conflicts with Israel, including in 2014, when it also kidnapped and murdered Israeli teenagers.
The fatal mistake, now so obvious, was for Israel to think that Hamas would ever moderate or transform from what it always has been. No liberal democracy can ever appease, or achieve any detente with a genocidal death cult. There can only be what John F Kennedy called the long, twilight struggle, especially when the jihadis are not oceans away, but right next door – or at your door.
It should not be forgotten that many victims of October 7 were not even Jewish – including twenty Israeli Arab Muslims murdered on that day. That is the diabolical fanaticism of Hamas’ hatred. There should never again be any illusions about Hamas, or what their slogan “All Palestine, from the river to the sea!” actually means.
The second illusion was that Israel’s internal divisions and abysmal leadership would not affect its regional security and deterrence. The radical judicial overhaul that Prime Minister Netanyahu pursued over the last ten months created a fierce and unprecedented schism within the Israeli public, which both projected and created weakness in the country’s military posture. Israel’s enemies interpreted the internal chaos as a sign of its unraveling. It is tragically unsurprising that Hamas chose to attack when Israel appeared weak and divided, and its deterrence faltering.
Leadership matters – but the repeated warnings of current and former security officials went unheeded by a prime minister recklessly committed to staying in power at all costs. That led to appointing far-right and shockingly incompetent Jewish supremacists to key positions like the Finance and Internal Security Ministries, which must run competently in any country, let alone one that hovers on the knife’s edge.
Israel simply cannot afford such poor governance and internal rifts which result in military reservists refusing to serve and jeopardized relations with its most important allies. Hamas and Hezbollah know they cannot destroy Israel from without; their goal is to cause it to erode from within. Enabling mortal foes to conclude that this might finally be happening is simply unforgivable.
The third illusion was that Israel could exist outside of the West, and in particular, without the aegis of the United States. Building for years on the populist Israeli right, and accelerating in the current coalition, was the mistaken belief that Israel could afford to distance itself from the United States and the West. This led some in Israel to seek partnerships with anti-democratic leaders in Eastern Europe, and most erroneously with Russia and China, where Israel (supposedly) would be welcomed as a military and technological powerhouse, and receive less criticism on the Palestinian issue. This bluster led Netanyahu into unprecedented crises with the United States: first with the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal, and later with President Biden over the judicial overhaul.
The fallacy here was a critical misunderstanding of Israel’s place in the world, which the current conflict has once again highlighted. Israel is part of the West, and its unique relationship with the United States in particular is one of its greatest strategic assets that must never be taken for granted. The billions of dollars in American aid, diplomatic support in the region and at the United Nations, and an implicit security guarantee differentiates Israel from almost any other country in the world, and certainly from among its adversaries. According to Amos Gilead, one of the country’s most prominent intelligence and military experts, the US relationship is more important to Israel’s security than even the Air Force or its nuclear capabilities. We are seeing now in real time just how critical American military and political support is.
Israel must always remain aligned with the group of liberal democracies that includes the United States, the Five Eyes, NATO, the European Union and the East Asian democracies. Yes, this alliance is imperfect: Israel does not always fit squarely into it, and there are sometimes meaningful disagreements. But the current crisis has shown Israel once again who its true friends are.
Consider the list of countries whose leaders have made solidarity trips to Israel since October 7: the United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Netherlands, Romania and the United Kingdom. Consider also that Ukraine, another embattled outpost of the West, immediately threw its support behind Israel after the attacks, despite tensions over Israel’s lack of military aid against Russia, and that Zelensky even offered to visit Israel in the midst of some of the bitterest fighting of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Q.E.D.
The fourth and final illusion was that an American withdrawal from the Middle East would strengthen, rather than weaken, the United States’ geopolitical objectives and ability to project power abroad. Since the Obama administration, the American foreign policy establishment has been convinced that a “pivot to Asia” was a necessary strategy to counter China’s rising challenge. Accordingly, since the Iraq war, the US has withdrawn the vast majority of its troops in the region, closed military bases and removed air defense systems from allies across the Middle East. Those moves, along with the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal, conveyed retreat and invited the ascendance of America’s adversaries: Russia in Ukraine, China in Taiwan and the broader Indo-Pacific, and Iran and its proxies throughout the Middle East. America’s primacy has now been challenged in two of these three flashpoints, including directly by Iranian-backed militias who have already launched more than twenty attacks on American positions in Iraq and Syria since October 7.
In the 20th century, American defense strategists stressed the need to be able to fight two major wars simultaneously (this was never meant to include nation-building or prolonged counterinsurgency, which is really what sapped American efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq). In the 21st century, the US must be able to project power and deter adversaries in Asia, the world’s most strategically important region, as well as in the Middle East, its most unstable one.
The US is now, at least temporarily, bolstering its presence in the region in response to the Israel-Hamas war. This includes sending two Navy carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean, launching retaliatory strikes in Syria and Iraq, downing missiles fired from Yemen targeting Israel, and giving Israel an unprecedented $14 billion in military aid. All of this, including President Biden’s stern warning of “Don’t” to Iran and Hezbollah, will hopefully be enough to limit the conflict. Standing by allies is one of the best ways for the US to enforce deterrence. America has alliances; China, only clients.
The current moment is existential for Israel – one that so many of us thought we would never see, but which we know we must see never again. It is also a strategic challenge for the United States, and possibly the time of greatest geopolitical instability since World War II. Posterity requires letting illusions die, in the hope that some kind of victory can be achieved and that whatever comes next can ultimately lead to something better.