People warned me before I came to Tel Aviv a few days ago that the Israel of Oct. 7 is an Israel that I’ve never been to before. They were right. It is a place in which Israelis have never lived before, a nation that Israeli generals have never had to protect before, an ally that America has never had to defend before — certainly not with the urgency and resolve that would lead a U.S. president to fly over and buck up the whole nation.
After traveling around Israel and the West Bank, I now understand why so much has changed. It is crystal clear to me that Israel is in real danger — more danger than at any time since its War of Independence in 1948. And it’s for three key reasons:
First, Israel is facing threats from a set of enemies who combine medieval theocratic worldviews with 21st century weaponry — and are no longer organized as small bands of militiamen, but as modern armies with brigades, battalions, cyber capabilities, long-range rockets, drones and technical support. I am speaking about Iranian-backed Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen — and now even the openlyVladimir Putin. These foes have long been there, but all of them seemed to surface together like dragons during this conflict, threatening Israel with a 360-degree war all at once.
How does a modern democracy live with such a threat? This is exactly the question these demonic forces wanted to instill in the mind of every Israeli. They are not seeking a territorial compromise with the Jewish state. Their goal is to collapse the confidence of Israelis that their defense and intelligence services can protect them from surprise attacks across their borders — so Israelis will, first, move away from the border regions and then they will move out of the country altogether.
I am stunned by how many Israelis now feel this danger personally, no matter where they live — starting with a friend who lives in Jerusalem telling me that she and her husband just got gun licenses to have pistols at home. No one is going to snatch their children and take them into a tunnel. Hamas, alas, has tunneled fear into many, many Israeli heads far from the Gaza border.
The second danger I see is that the only conceivable way that Israel can generate the legitimacy, resources, time and allies to fight such a difficult war with so many enemies is if it has unwavering partners abroad, led by the United States. President Biden, quite heroically, has been trying to help Israel with its immediate and legitimate goal of dismantling Hamas’s messianic terrorist regime in Gaza — which is as much a threat to the future of Israel as it is to Palestinians longing for a decent state of their own in Gaza or the West Bank.
But Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza entails urban, house-to-house fighting that creates thousands of civilian casualties — innocent men, women and children — among whom Hamas deliberately embedded itself to force Israel to have to kill those innocents in order to kill the Hamas leadership and uproot its miles of attack tunnels.
But President Biden can only sustainably generate the support Israel needs if Israel is ready to engage in some kind of a wartime diplomatic initiative directed at the Palestinians in the West Bank — and hopefully in a post-Hamas Gaza — that indicates Israel will discuss some kind of two-state solutions if Palestinian officials can get their political house unified and in order.
This leads directly into my third, deep concern.
Israel has the worst leader in its history, maybe in all of Jewish history — who has no will or ability to produce such an initiative.
Worse, I am stunned at the degree to which that leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, continues to put the interests of holding on to the support of his far-right base — and pre-emptively blaming Israel’s security and intelligence services for the war — ahead of maintaining national solidarity or doing some of the basic things that President Biden needs in order to get Israel the resources, allies, time and legitimacy it needs to defeat Hamas.
Biden cannot help Israel build a coalition of U.S., European and moderate Arab partners to defeat Hamas if Netanyahu’s message to the world remains, in effect: “Help us defeat Hamas in Gaza, while we work to expand settlements, annex the West Bank and build a Jewish supremacist state there.”
Let’s drill down on these dangers.
Last Saturday night, a retired Israeli Army commander stopped by my hotel in Tel Aviv to share his perspective on the war. I took him to the 18th floor executive lounge for our chat and when we got into the elevator to go up, we joined a family of four — two parents, a toddler and a baby in a stroller. The Israeli general asked them where they were from. “Kiryat Shmona,” the father answered.
As we stepped out, I joked with the general that he could dispense with his briefing. It took just 18 floors and those two words — “Kiryat Shmona” — to describe Israel’s wickedly complex new strategic dilemma created by the surprise Hamas attack of Oct. 7.
Kiryat Shmona is one of the most important Israeli border towns on the border with Lebanon. That father said his family had fled the northern fence line with thousands of other Israeli families after the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia and Palestinian militias in southern Lebanon began lobbing rockets and artillery and making incursions in solidarity with Hamas.
When might they go back? They had no idea. Like more than 200,000 other Israelis, they have taken refuge with friends or in hotels all across this small country of nine million people. And it has only taken a few weeks for Israelis to begin driving up real estate in seemingly safer central Israeli towns. For Hezbollah, that alone is mission accomplished, without even invading like Hamas.
On Sunday I drove down to a hotel on the Dead Sea to meet some of the hundreds of surviving members of Kibbutz Be’eri, which had some 1,200 residents, including 360 children. It was one of the communities hardest hit by the Hamas onslaught — suffering more than 130 murders in addition to scores of injured and multiple kidnappings of children and elderly. The Israeli government has moved most survivors of the kibbutz across the country to the Dead Sea, where they are now starting their own schools in the hotel ballroom.
I asked Liat Admati, 35, a survivor of the Hamas attack who ran a clinic for facial cosmetics for 11 years in Be’eri, what would make it possible for her go back to her Gaza border home, where she was raised.
“The main thing for me to go back is to feel safe,” she said. “Before this situation I felt I have trust in the army. Now I feel the trust is broken. I don’t want to feel that we are covering ourselves in walls and shelters all the time, while behind this fence there are people who can one day do this again. I really don’t know at this point what the solution is.”
Before Oct. 7, she and her neighbors thought the threat was rockets, she said, so they built safe rooms — but now that Hamas gunmen came over and burned parents and kids in their safe rooms, who knows what is safe? “The safe room was designed to keep you safe from rockets — not from another human who would come and kill you for who you are,” she said. What is most dispiriting, she concluded, is that it appears that some Gazans who worked on the kibbutz gave Hamas maps of the layout.
There are a lot of Israelis who listened to the recording,, of a Hamas gunman who took part in the Oct. 7 onslaught, identified by his father as “Mahmoud,” calling his parents from the phone of a Jewish woman he’s just murdered, and imploring them to check his WhatsApp messages to see the pictures he took of some of the 10 Jews he alone killed in Mefalsim, a kibbutz near the Gaza border.
“Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews,” he says, according to an English translation. “Mom, your son is a hero,” he later adds. His parents can be heard seemingly rejoicing.
This kind of chilling exuberance — Israel was built so that such a thing could never happen — explains the homemade sign I saw on a sidewalk while driving through the French Hill Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem the other day: “It’s either us or them.’’
The euphoric rampage of Oct. 7 that killed some 1,400 soldiers and civilians has not only hardened Israeli hearts toward the suffering of Gaza civilians. It has also inflicted a deep sense of humiliation and guilt on the Israeli Army and defense establishment, for having failed in their most basic mission of protecting the country’s borders.
As a result, there is a conviction in the army that they must demonstrate to the entire neighborhood — to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the Houthis in Yemen, to the Islamic militias in Iraq to the Hamas and other fighters in the West Bank — that they will stop at nothing to re-establish the security of their borders. While the army insists that it is hewing to the laws of war, it wants to show that no one can out-crazy Israel to drive them from this region — even if the Israeli military has to defy the U.S. and even if they do not have any solid plan for governing Gaza the morning after the war.
As Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant,on Wednesday: “Israel cannot accept such an active threat on its borders. The whole idea of people living side by side in the Middle East was jeopardized by Hamas.”
This conflict is now back to its most biblical and primordial roots. This seems to be a time of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. The morning-after policy thinking will have to wait for the mourning after.
Which is why I so worry about the leadership here today. I was traveling around the West Bank on Tuesday when I heard that Netanyahu had justABC News that Israel plans to retain “overall security responsibility” in Gaza “for an indefinite period” after its war with Hamas.
Really? Consider this context: “to Israel’s official Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2021, 9.449 million people live in Israel (including Israelis in West Bank settlements), the Times of Israel last year. “Of those, 6.982 million (74 percent) are Jewish, 1.99 million (21 percent) are Arab and 472,000 (5 percent) are neither. The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics puts the West Bank Palestinian population at a little over three million, and the Gaza population at just over two million.”
So, Netanyahu is saying that seven million Jews are going to indefinitely control the lives of five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — while offering them no political horizon, nothing, by way of statehood one day on any demilitarized conditions.
Early on the morning of Oct. 29, as the Israeli Army was just moving into Gaza, Netanyahu tweeted and then deleted a social media post in which he blamed Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment for failing to anticipate Hamas’s surprise attack. (Netanyahu somehow forgot how often the Israeli military and intelligence leaders had warned him that his totally unnecessary coup against the country’s judicial system was fracturing the army and Israel’s enemies were all noticing its vulnerability.)
After being slammed by the public for digitally stabbing his army and intelligence chiefs in the back in the middle of a war, Netanyahu published a new tweet. “I was wrong,” he wrote,“the things I said following the press conference should not have been said, and I apologize for that. I fully support the heads of [Israel’s] security services.”
But the damage was done. How much do you suppose those military leaders trust what Netanyahu will say if the Gaza campaign stalls? What real leader would behave that way at the start of a war of survival?
Let me not mince words, because the hour is dark and Israel, as I said, is in real danger. Netanyahu and his far-right zealots have taken Israel on multiple flights of fancy in the last year: dividing the country and the army over the fraudulent judicial reform, bankrupting its future with massive investments in religious schools that teach no math and in West Bank Jewish settlements that teach no pluralism — while building up Hamas, which would never be a partner for peace, and tearing down the Palestinian Authority, the only possible partner for peace.
The sooner Israel replaces Netanyahu and his far-right allies with a true center-left-center-right national unity government, the better chance it has to hold together during what is going to be a hellish war and aftermath. And the better chance that President Biden — who may be down in the polls in America but could get elected here in a landslide for the empathy and steel he showed at Israel’s hour of need — will not have hitched his credibility and ours to a Netanyahu Israel that will never be able to fully help us to help it.
This society is so much better than its leader. It is too bad it took a war to drive that home. Ron Scherf is a retired member of Israel’s most elite special forces unit and a founder of Brothers in Arms — the Israeli activist coalition that mobilized veterans and reservists to oppose Netanyahu’s judicial coup. Immediately after the Hamas invasion, Brothers in Arms pivoted to organizing reservists and aid workers to get to the front — left, right, religious, secular, it didn’t matter — many hours before this incompetent government did.
It’s a remarkable story of grass-roots mobilization that showed how much solidarity is still buried in this place and could be unlocked by a different prime minister, one who was a uniter, not a divider. Or as Scherf put it to me: “When you go to the front, you are overwhelmed by the power of what we lost.”