War with Gaza could lead to a new strategic reality for Israel

Like in 1973, the country is likely to face political churn

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a situation assessment meeting in Tel Aviv on Sunday. EPA
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In October 1973, Israel was caught by surprise in an attack Egypt and Syria launched, coinciding with a major Jewish festival that also fell on a Saturday, the Jewish sabbath. The attack succeeded in catching Israel “cold”, as the nation commemorated the holy day.

Remarkably, almost 50 years to the day, Israel has again been caught by surprise by a devastating assault – leaving many hundreds of its citizens dead – also launched on a Jewish holiday that fell on the sabbath. It is already being dubbed “Israel’s 9/11”.

How this could have happened again – so eerily echoing the 1973 war failings – will be debated for decades to come.

For the timing of Hamas’s attack should have been anticipated, particularly given the following indicators: one, months of Israeli and Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem, as Israel’s most right-wing government pushed policies that angered Palestinians; two, Israeli government ministers’ visits to Saudi Arabia as it seemed a Saudi-Israel normalisation deal was in the works – a nightmare scenario for Hamas’s backers in Iran, which has been in a hegemonic contest with the Saudis for decades; three, Iran’s desire to seek revenge after numerous Israeli intelligence successes against it in recent years, including many inside the country; and four, the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war, the previous major Arab military success against Israel.

An Egyptian intelligence official has now said that Israel ignored their repeated warnings that Hamas was planning “something big”, as it focused on the West Bank and possibly played down threats from Gaza.

The immediate strategic impact will be in halting the Saudi deal, for now anyway.

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The 1973 war led Israel to reassess its strategic reality and the status of the land it had taken in 1967

The Israeli right have naively believed that regional peace could be achieved without making any political concessions to the Palestinians – even ones just to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – and that the current status-quo could be controlled by Israel on its own terms. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had proclaimed that Arab states were interested to cultivate relationships with Israel with no such conditions.

They hoped a deal with Saudi Arabia would be the ultimate proof of this. However, the reality of the Hamas attack – and the long ground assault on Gaza that Israel will almost certainly now embark on – will force a Saudi rethink.

It is almost inconceivable that Riyadh will risk a deal with Israel right now, in light of the mood that will take hold in the Arab world if and when Israel’s ground assault on Gaza begins, especially as the nascent deal will have included measures to improve Palestinian-Israeli relations. This is a huge win for Iran.

The 9/11 analogy is thus particularly apt in one key aspect – a powerful state (the US on 9/11, Israel now) underestimating the capability of a foreign “terror” organisation (Al Qaeda then, Hamas now), largely due to underestimating the role an enemy state (Afghanistan then, Iran now) played in augmenting its capacity.

After 9/11, it was understood that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan had lent state capacity to Al Qaeda – resulting in the US removing the Taliban from power. Now Iran may have done the same for Hamas.

Whether this raises the possibility of Israel attacking Iran, or not, it is instructive that Tehran has publicly denied direct involvement.

But the most profound consequence of this “Israeli 9/11” will probably be at the heart of Israeli politics. Fifty years ago, the fallout of the 1973 war was the eventual decline of the left. The Labour Party that had governed Israel since its inception was seen as having lost control, with its focus on domestic ideological causes leading to complacency and catastrophe.

When the fighting ends and the battle for the next Israeli election begins, will this period of right-wing dominance – Mr Netanyahu has run the country longer than any other prime minister – also be viewed as one where its leaders’ focus on domestic ideological causes distracted them from defending the state?

Mr Netanyahu’s domination of Israeli politics has been based on his national security credentials, but will his leadership survive the scrutiny of the failures that led to the current crisis? The electoral system is fraught with uncertainty, but, together with the huge public outrage against the judicial reforms, a major shake-up of the country’s politics seems certain.

Yet the long-term strategic legacy may not play out as might be assumed.

The 1973 war led Israel to reassess its strategic reality and the status of the land it had taken in 1967. And the Arab world grudgingly had to accept that even when Israel is knocked down, it is very quickly back up fighting. This resulted in the previously unthinkable land-for-peace deal in 1979, Egypt’s recognition of Israel and the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo.

In time, the 1973 “defeat” thus led to the strengthening of Israel’s security and regional status rather than the diminishing of it. This latest tragedy demands similar introspection and the questioning of Israel’s political direction of travel. Time will tell whether today’s intelligence and security failures will lead to equally dramatic changes in Israel’s strategic outlook.

Published: October 10, 2023, 4:00 AM