Fifty years ago in the midst of Yom Kippur, the sirens blared and nothing would be the same. Saturday morning the sirens returned in the midst of Simhat Torah and the feeling was similar. What was accepted wisdom on Gaza and the Hamas can no longer be the same. The Yom Kippur War cost Israel thousands of lives, but it also convinced the Egyptians and ultimately much of the Arab world that Israel and Israelis would make whatever sacrifices needed to ensure a military victory. Ultimately, the courage and sacrifice of Israeli soldiers and society enabled peace with Egypt and much of the Arab world.
Israelis have been stunned by the success of the Hamas attack. Between the headlines on the mounting death toll and the frightening number of hostages taken to Gaza, one can hear and read the anguished questions. “What happened to army intelligence? How could we not have been prepared? How could we have so colossally misjudged Hamas?
In the days and even years to come millions of pages will be written to explain, justify, condemn or celebrate the total surprise achieved by Hamas. Pundits, historians and investigators will focus as usual on the failure of this or that intelligence gadget, the certainty that the underground barrier would prove invincible, the supposed trade-off of money and worker permits for quiet, or perhaps the human failures of young intelligence officers who failed to read the signs. However the failure goes much deeper, and it reflects both how we view the enemy and how we view ourselves. The first is a function of the second.
In May 1948 David Ben Gurion received a message from George Marshall, Secretary of State and the former commander of the American armies that had defeated both Germany and Japan. Speaking through Moshe Shertok, the director of foreign affairs of the Jewish Agency, former General Marshall told former Corporal Ben Gurion that declaring an independent Jewish state would unleash a new Holocaust on the Jewish people; that seven Arab armies would immediately invade and that the United States would not rescue the Jews unless they gave up their dream of Jewish statehood.
Corporal Ben Gurion stood up to General Marshall, convinced his colleagues, and on May 15, 1948, the State of Israel was born. Ben Gurion knew very well that the price of independence by the Jews of Israel would be unspeakable, and in fact over the course of the war more than 6,000 Jews were killed, one percent of the population. But Ben Gurion knew that the people of Israel were willing to pay any price necessary to achieve the dream of statehood, and the price of victory was steep indeed
Ever since the Labor government of 1992, Israeli leaders have misread their people. With the help of the mass media, they have convinced themselves that Israelis have become spoiled, self-centered and unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to survive as an independent Jewish state in the Middle East. This process began with Yitzhak Rabin, who traced his motivations to negotiate with arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat to the trauma of multiple visits to comfort families of soldiers (while Arafat never stopped calling for more Palestinians to martyr themselves). It continued in 2005 when Ehud Olmert, who offered to withdraw from 98% of the West Bank and to divide Jerusalem, attributed his abandonment of the doctrines of secure borders and Jewish historical claims to national exhaustion:
“We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies. We want to be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies.”
The process of underselling the determination of Israelis to face down threats to their national existence continued again as government after government – most but not all led by Benjamin Netanyahu – refused to act decisively against Iranian nuclear ambitions, which are on the verge of being realized, or to destroy the Hamas and the quasi terrorist state that has now succeeded in slaughtering hundreds of Israelis in cold blood and in handing Israel its worse debacle in half a century.
The concept of an Israeli victory that would destroy the Hamas is raised during every round of hostilities. And yet, how many times have we heard the refrain “Would it be worth the price?” or, “What will happen the day after?”
The assumption has been that the Israeli public is no longer willing to pay the price required to ensure Israel’s future viability. The result of this assumption has been a two-pronged policy: In times of conflict to set the military objective as “exacting a price” or “reestablishing deterrence” and in times of relative quiet to bribe the Hamas with suitcases of Qatari cash and workers permits.
This policy is the result of confirmation bias: because the Israeli public is not seen as being willing to pay the price of defeating the Hamas, policy makers have determined that the Hamas, an ideological movement totally dedicated to the destruction of Israel, can be placated by cash payments and workers salaries. This assumption is and always has been fallacious; Hamas is made up of dedicated, intelligent, creative and courageous leaders and fighters who have never retreated one iota from their goal of destroying Israel, who have no concept of military ethics, and who have are willing to pay any price in the blood of their own people.
Until this morning conventional wisdom argued that the Hamas could be contained with a combination of bribery and coercion. As of this morning, at least, it is clear that this is no longer the case; the ability of Hamas – on its own – to conquer military positions and three settlements (without air power) while raining down thousands of missiles on Israeli cities, and above all, to think strategically, has proven otherwise.
The Hamas is not led by Anwar Sadat. Its goal is to destroy Israel by sapping the staying power of Israel’s citizens, not maneuvering for a peace agreement it could sell its people. Hamas has become a strategic threat of the first order. Israelis understand this better than their leadership. They are no less determined to guarantee the future of Jewish independence than were the 650,000 residents of the Yishuv whom Ben Gurion relied on in 1948. The cost of leaving the Hamas in control of Gaza will ultimately be far more tragic than the results of this terrible day. Israelis realize that we have no choice but to pay it. It is the responsibility of our leadership to set this as their goal.