While the immediate focus is on how Israel will survive this gravest existential threat in its 75 year history, we examine five lessons that the U.S. and the world should learn from this conflagration.
1. The dangers of domestic disunity
By Hamas’s own admission, domestic disunity in Israel contributed to the timing of Hamas’s invasion—with the Israeli government distracted by fierce political battles and daily protests arising from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to undermine bribery and corruption charges against him, while placating far-right elements focused on expanding Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Israel’s own defense minister warned that Hamas was poised to exploit Israel’s domestic disunity, but his counsel was ignored in the lead-up to the invasion.
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2. Overconfidence breeds complacency
Just last week, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan declared “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” merely days before the Hamas attack. Similarly, it appears the Israelis fell for their own myth of military invincibility—not just superiority—which was meant to deter aggressors but ended up lulling Israel into a false sense of complacency. Former Mossad espionage chief Efraim Halevy told CNN, an attack from Hamas of this scale was “beyond our imagination.”
Now that invincibility has been shattered. It was the most hardline government in Israel’s history that failed to prepare for the first invasion of Israeli soil since the War of Independence in 1948. Even in the Six Day War of 1967, enemy armies did not advance into Israeli territory while Israel captured the huge Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. And in the Yom Kippur War, exactly 50 years ago, the enemy armies only briefly seized pieces of the territories Israel had captured in 1967.
This is particularly galling given the context of the disputed territories Israel held after 1967. Just after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew all Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, new Israeli towns were built nearby—inside pre-1967 Israel. The region was named Otef Aza, which is Hebrew for “Gaza Wrap,” referring to the areas within 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) of the Gaza Strip border. The 70,000 Israeli citizens living in the Otef Aza became accustomed to mortar shells and cheaply made rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, but now we see there was no plan to repel a land invasion by Hamas.
Israeli overconfidence led to oversights and mistakes which were easily avoidable in hindsight. Technology was not a shield from danger. The unique Iron Dome missile-defense system has worked very well, taking out 90% to 95% of Gaza-based rocket attacks on Israel, according to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimates. But despite that, and spending over $1 billion to build a high-tech security fence and wall sealing Gaza, the insufficient number of Israeli soldiers stationed there were unable to stop rudimentary Hamas bulldozers from ramming right through. Likewise, despite sophisticated hi-tech intelligence systems, Hamas planners somehow evaded all Israeli detection.
3. Isolationism is not a choice in today’s world
In the days before Hamas’s invasion, there was a fresh surge of isolationism among U.S. politicians on both the extreme left and especially the extreme right. The dangerous forays into isolationism ignore the fact that, whether we like it or not, there are foreign adversaries seeking to harm the U.S. and our allies, and our withdrawal would only embolden their aggression, whether in the Middle East, Central Europe, or anywhere else.
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Perhaps today’s isolationists ought to learn from one of their ideological predecessors. Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg arrived in the Senate in 1929 as one of the most fervent isolationists in the lead-up to World War II. But not only did he reverse his own positions after the outbreak of war, he used his perch as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to lead his caucus away from isolationism, shepherding the Marshall Plan, NATO, and funding for the Cold War through the Senate. Half the Republican-controlled House, or at least Jim Jordan, needs the same epiphany in realizing that America First does not mean America alone.
4. Warfare messaging rivals military might
Through artful propaganda and intensive use of media, villains can conflate their identities with the genuine victims. For now, a strong bipartisan consensus has emerged in the U.S., supporting Israel and its right to respond mightily, with some voices calling for the full-scale destruction of Hamas.
This remarkable bipartisan unity was driven in part by the horrific pictures and videos of slaughtered civilians, kidnapped grandmas, panicked toddlers, and highways strewn with corpses, just as how the horrific pictures of dead Ukrainians in Kyiv and Bucha helped catalyze western support for Ukraine 18 months ago. Military campaigns are never purely military, as they depend on the building and sustaining of popular support over long periods of time. Moving forward, it is likely that the messaging war will be as important as the military war, especially since, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned, Israel is preparing for a “long and challenging” conflict with no easy solutions to the future of Gaza even if Hamas is destroyed.
5. The historic quicksand of lineage and land battles
Despite Hamas’s transitory adrenaline boost, with the streets of Gaza full of celebration that the “Zionist enemy has been humiliated,” glorification of violence is now giving way to the hard reality of massive destruction. The cost to Gazans immediately includes hundreds of thousands of them displaced or fleeing, and the loss of thousands of work permits for higher paying jobs in Israel and border-crossing papers for excellent medical care. This is just the latest in a long string of self-destructive decisions by Hamas, whose leaders have thrust Gaza deeper into poverty since their takeover in 2007, while destroying infrastructure ranging from power plants to greenhouses that Israel had handed over when it withdrew two years earlier. This drew criticism from even the Palestinian Authority, but the Fatah-led PA lost a civil war with Hamas and was ejected.
Hamas’s exploitation of historical and territorial grievances—plunging Palestinian society backwards—stands in stark contrast to how other groups and nations have forged more forward-looking postures from the crucible of grievances: balancing aggrievement, however well or ill justified, with a heavier dose of pragmatism. In Hamas’s own backyard, there are key elements in the rival Palestinian Authority that are embracing the potential fruits of Saudi-Israel normalization that Hamas opposes. Yes, we are not unaware that the P.A. has their own challenges but they do not normalize terrorism.
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The lost opportunity from potential normalization hurts the Palestinian people the most. At an opening summit for the Abraham Accords in Bahrain, the heads of all Gulf states alongside Palestinian businessmen discussed 190 specific projects aiming to increase Palestinian export revenue from 17% to 40% of GDP; ensure reliable electricity; double the drinkable water supply; connect more schools to high-speed data services; increase women’s participation in the work force; and generate a 500% increase in foreign direct investment in key industries such as tourism, agriculture, digital services, housing, and manufacturing, in addition to significant infrastructure enhancements. All these projects were contingent upon diplomatic normalization and now seem less likely to happen.
Jews and Palestinians are equal descendants genetically of the 15 ancient tribes that roamed this contested land. At some point, boundaries are drawn and sovereignty declared. Fully 18 million Indians and Pakistanis were displaced when those lands were divided in 1947, a year before more than 1 million Jews and Palestinians were displaced in the region following Israel’s creation, but persistent bitterness has not normalized barbaric kidnappings of grandmas from their homes and slaughter of teenagers at music concerts. For centuries, until the end of World War II, half today’s Ukraine was part of Poland, but no one disputes those borders now. So how far must we go to adjudicate potentially rightful claims? When wars end, treaties can be settled, boundaries drawn, and life can go forward.