Every intelligence officer in the United States at one point in his formal training learns about the great Israeli intelligence failure in the 1973 war. The lesson is clear, and is the same one identified by Roberta Wohlstetter regarding the great failure in Pearl Harbor in 1941: a set of ideas, or “conception,” can so thoroughly dominate elites and the professional strategic and intelligence communities that it overpowers growing evidence and information suggesting an approaching tectonic shift.
Israel has just been shaken, because it suffered in recent days a second great—indeed, catastrophic—“failure of conception,” with dramatic human and strategic consequences. And it will face a grave national challenge going forward, beyond the horrific missile barrages from Gaza, because its entire understanding of its situation and the defense concepts that flow from it have collapsed.
And yet, Israel also faces a great opportunity. A proper response could deliver Israel a tremendous victory, perhaps one of its greatest, and leave it much strengthened and more valued in the long run as an ally for others struggling to survive in a dangerous region.
The dream palace of illusions
With respect to Iran’s nuclear program and attempts to establish its power in Syria, Israel has embraced the strategy of preemption which served it so well in its early years to deny an avowed genocidal enemy the means to execute its ambition. And yet, with regard to its other enemies, Israel in recent decades has shifted from preemption to deterrence and a “quiet for quiet” formula.
It turned to relying on American support rather than enjoying the freedom of action to shape its environment into a less dangerous form. It watched massive stockpiling of missiles in Gaza and in Lebanon but believed its overwhelming force, and the willingness to use it, guaranteed deterrence. Israel believed it could absorb constant attacks on border communities as a below-the-threshold simmering, much to the chagrin of the people living in those communities. And Israel believed it could pay blood money to a desperate Hamas via the Qataris to keep them quiet.
Israel believed its technological superiority and splendid defensive measures not only guaranteed defense, but render wars and future missile barrages relatively painless, thus sparing it the need to make the hard choice to seize and hold territory to prevent attacks on the country. Geography was no longer really a military question since Israel’s superior technology had superseded it. Gaza did not have to be dealt with. Iron Dome and the border fence did that.
Israel believed that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) were pathetic, harmless and powerless. That their rhetoric and indoctrination of generational waves of children into martyrdom and hatred for Jews were noxious but not important enough to really do anything about.
Israel believed that threatening its existence was no longer a realistic aspiration, and that with the exception of Iran and its nuclear program, such threats were but a fantastic internal political elixir for various Arab nations and factions.
It believed that the dangerous rhetoric of the traditional Israeli Arab leadership (as opposed to another upstart Arab party which sought to participate in Israel’s system, and to whose leadership a modicum of credit for trying to calm the situation right now is due), which even from the platform of the Knesset called Israel racist, colonialist and worthy of destruction, was simply an electoral device.
Israel could signal its virtue, it believed, by allowing its enemies to heap bile and spew venom on the very right of the nation to exist, in the institutional heart of Israel’s democracy.
And Israel believed it was so powerful that it could yield its rights in places symbolically critical to Judaism, the most foundational of which is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, without being perceived as weak and defeated.
It expressed pride over its freedom of worship but tolerated increasing restrictions on Jews and Christians, who could not even carry Bibles or non-Palestinian tour books when they visited the Temple Mount complex.
In short, Israel believed that the massive arming of its enemies no longer required preemption, and that the assertion of its national and historical and legal rights, for which every Jew prayed every day for 2,000 years in exile, was no longer an essential pillar of its identity, morale or even existence.
This all collapsed over the past week. More than a thousand missiles rained down on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and every other city in the center and south. Many Jews were injured, some were killed. Israeli Arabs rioted—not all or even most, but many—burning Israeli cities from within, destroying hospital emergency rooms, forcing evacuations of Jews from neighborhoods in front of rampaging mobs determined to prosecute a modern-day pogrom, and burning many synagogues to the ground. Cars were stopped on the highways and the passengers beaten by Arab lynch mobs. Many Jews were injured, and some were killed.
The P.A. and its incitement began this cycle of violence. It did so to avoid losing an election to Hamas. The resulting chain of events made Hamas the uncontested master of the street in Judea and Samaria—but the rhetoric of Abbas, the West’s beloved partner for peace, was not harmless. Indeed, he provided the fuel for a month and a match daily that set off this conflagration.
In Jerusalem, riots have now continued for a month. Many Jews have been injured. Israel was forced to cancel—for the first time since 1967—its Jerusalem Day celebratory flag march to mark the reunification of the city. It barred Jews from entering the Temple Mount. Israel backed down and postponed a court hearing on the eviction of Arab squatters from houses in which they have lived for 50 years while refusing to pay rent to the Jews who have held the deed to the land for a century. It has left unanswered the assertions internationally that Jewish land deeds were less valid than others’ and that the presence of Jews in the city they made holy is an “abhorrent” and “illegal” act, as some major U.S. Democratic politicians have said.
Hamas has made clear that this war is about Jerusalem. Israel’s largesse and tolerance of a constantly eroding status quo in the city has led to the Temple Mount becoming essentially a sovereign and entirely independent Muslim mini-territory, akin to the Vatican. Israeli sovereignty there has been all but lost, and no Israeli authority or police can enter without encountering both violence, international crisis and serious international threat of intervention. In 2017, Israel yielded even its control of access to the Temple Mount, removing metal detectors installed after Islamists brought weapons into the complex to attack and kill Jews. Israel was not even allowed to install cameras to monitor who entered the Temple Mount complex.
War is not a military affair only. It is ultimately a psychological struggle. Victory is defined by strategy and perception, not only or even primarily by power. And Israel is losing.
Hamas has defined this war. It has set the agenda. And its definition of victory rests entirely on the issue of Jerusalem. It understands that this is the symbolic heart of the Jewish people. It has tied the launching of every one of its thousands of missiles into Israel to the measure of control over the Temple Mount. It has become the champion and standard-bearer of those who wish to punch a hole in the heart of the soul of the Jewish nation. And it has declared victory because Israel has shown timidity and caution in asserting its rights, or even in maintaining its position in Jerusalem.
Israel’s sovereignty was eroded and is now challenged in one last push. And Hamas has won the support of Turkey, which talks of sending troops to help fight the Jews in Jerusalem, and Jordan, which is ostensibly at peace with Israel, and of course Iran as well. It is the modern Saladin laying siege to the last vestiges of non-Muslim control over Christendom’s and Judaism’s holiest places on earth.
But Israel has convinced itself that somehow a path to deterrence can still be found, and that this is an issue of power and military strength. It has convinced itself that the answer to this attack and the dangerous collapse of every sense of security held dear by the Israeli people lies in Gaza. But Israeli strategy right now is like the proverbial man who lost something in a dark place, but looks for it under the streetlamp because the light there is better. Gaza is not where Hamas can be defeated, because Hamas is no longer about Gaza, but about Jerusalem, and about the heartland of the holy land north and south of it, the hills of Judea and Samaria and the other holy cities of Judaism, Christianity and Samaritanism—Hebron and Bethlehem, of Shiloh and Mount Eval.
Hamas rules and represents the Arabs in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, not the illusionary Western crutch of the P.A., the PLO and Abbas, whose very escalation they triggered to avoid humiliating defeat has ironically left them even more rejected and irrelevant to the point of invisibility.
The path to victory
Israel can still win this war, indeed win a great victory. A defeat of Hamas in Gaza involving the capture and demise of many of its leaders is essential. It is dubious that it can evince enough strength just from the air, so perhaps a ground incursion must take place. This will not be easy, but the unwillingness to deal with this problem decisively has allowed this moderate problem for the last decade to become a serious problem, one whose elimination is now inescapable. And a symbolic return to at least a piece of Gaza, perhaps the northern area where the Israeli towns were before 2005, is necessary to make defeat geographically visible.
And there must be repercussions for the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Arsonists cannot be allowed to walk away from the smoldering ruins of their handiwork with smiling impunity. At the least, the two-state concept anchored to the idea that somehow this weak construct and man can or wants to deliver peace must now be formally challenged by Israel. The P.A. has exposed not only its own weakness but its willingness to re-engage in conflict at will. Abbas has proven that he never eschewed violence, just merely held it in reserve. The arsonist should no longer be invited to dinner.
But Israel must know that while Hamas in Gaza must now pay a deep and humiliating price, and Abbas must be held accountable for his arson, the only path to victory is to reassert its rights over what has been the center of the Jewish nation for 3,800 years: Jerusalem. Hamas has defined this war by its dominance and de facto sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the idea that it can through threat simply void Jewish land deeds. So, to win this war, Israel must win on those two issues.
To do so, Israel must establish some sort of presence on the Temple Mount. It need not be dramatic or brutal, but symbolically powerful: a permanent police outpost or an offer to the Christians to join a Jewish—Muslim council that will now sit above the Muslim Waqf to oversee and limit its activities on the Mount. Or it can create a small Christian and Jewish prayer area in a discreet corner of the Mount.
Perhaps it might involve rearranging the character of the current Wakf (the Muslim religious trust that administers the Mount) and turning over its authority to a committee that is managed by another Arab country at peace with Israel like the UAE or Bahrain.
Sadly, Jordan had traditionally played a helpful role in this, dominating the Waqf with key allied families, but it has in recent years become so weak and floundering in its outlook that it has undermined its own traditional position as such a leader. Indeed, this reliance on Jordan as the stabilizer of the Palestinians was yet another conceptual foundation of an Israeli strategy that now has collapsed. It could still participate, but Muslim leadership on this issue must pass to a more energetic and coherent national representation.
There is no shortage of ideas, but whatever action is taken must be a modest but highly symbolic act that establishes with great clarity that Hamas has lost control, that the Jews and Christians have rights and will now have a permanent presence on the Temple Mount, that Israeli sovereignty is reasserted with control and some sort of police presence, and that moderate Arab states at peace with Israel now will dominate the managing of Muslim assets in the holy places, not the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.
Israel has the power to win. It is technologically superior, and vastly better trained and armed than its enemies. So, it need not fear the shrill voices coming from Tehran or Ankara. They are not in the same league as Israel if it comes to an intervention by them. Their intervention and failure would only increase the size of an Israeli victory.
But again, war is not about power primarily, but about the struggle of perceptions and a battle over one’s soul. Israel is at a crossroads, and the choices it has all involve a price—and it is a dear price, in some form or another. But it can emerge from this crisis with a victory as great as that of 1967 if it abandons the mentality of management and instead operates under a vision and grasps a deep understanding about the struggle over the soul defining this war, and that its victory can only emerge from the heights of Jerusalem, not Hades’s tunnels in Gaza.
Dr. David Wurmser is director of the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship. A former U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer, he has extensive national security experience working for the State Department, the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council.
This article was first published by the Center for Security Policy.