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How Israel Adapts After Failure

The history of the Israel Defense Forces is a history of failure followed by exceptionally rapid recovery. Israel’s elite paratrooper units were born from organizations created after a series of botched retaliation raids in the early 1950s. Its armored corps became one of the world’s best after a dismal performance in 1956. Other units were created after a failed attempt in 1974 to rescue hostages held in the town of Ma’alot. Israel’s brilliant suppression of Syrian air defenses in 1982 resulted from staggering aircraft losses in 1973’s Yom Kippur War, and so on.

Each time, after failure, the IDF adapts, as it will today. It is helped in doing so by a tradition of brutal self-scrutiny. Almost all of the documentation of the Agranat Commission after the 1973 war has been declassified; eventually that of the Winograd Commission, which delved into the failures of the 2006 Lebanon War, will be as well. In each case, heads rolled—ministers of defense, chiefs of staff, and even prime ministers. Following the current debacle on the Gaza border, the same is likely to occur. What hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters alarmed by a proposed judicial reform could not do to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, five or six grim-faced retired judges, generals, and civil servants probably will.

The IDF is properly considered one of the best armies in the world: innovative, creative, and skilled. It is so because it can draw upon all of its country’s most talented and capable citizens, which is the great benefit of a legitimate system of universal conscription and prolonged reserve service. The country’s advanced technological base —which began to be felt in war as early as 1967—is a tremendous help, as is its small size and the immediacy of the threat. Soldiers are, after all, fighting quite literally to protect homes and family.

But then what explains the catastrophic failure on display in the past few days? Gaza is one of the most intensely surveilled patches of land on Earth, barely 140 square miles in extent. The Israelis control the air space and have sensors of all kinds monitoring it; at the same time, their domestic-security service knows the complicated clan structures and in the past has been able to play upon their rivalries.

One explanation will surely have to do with the assistance Hamas has had from Iran and possibly other actors, such as Hezbollah. The training of Hamas assault squads, the deep and intricate tunnels and bunker systems in Gaza, and the ability of the Palestinian terror group to smuggle in advanced weapons suggest the work of capable allies. And the devil must get his due: Hamas is disciplined, ideologically committed, ruthless, and clever. As the saying goes, play chess against a chess master, and you get better at chess.

But there is another reason. The abetting sin of the IDF, like that of many of its political superiors, is hubris. After the Yom Kippur War, one sidelined general, who though secular had had a religious education, said that the war was the result of the sin of azut metzach. The reference was to the confessional liturgy of the day, when Jews beat their chests and confessed to many kinds of sins, including those deriving from azut metzach: arrogance.

When a commission investigates this war, it will undoubtedly find many faults in the work of Israeli intelligence, operational planning, and above all political leadership, which left Israel looking exceptionally weak to its enemies, even as it distracted itself by brewing unnecessary violence in the occupied territories of the West Bank. But the underlying sin will probably have a large component of arrogance, the same arrogance that convinced Israeli generals that a couple of tank brigades would shatter the Egyptian army in 1973, or that the Hezbollah problem in 2006 could be dispatched with a lot of air power and little else.

The story will not, however, end there. Israel will be transformed by this debacle, so cunningly timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the earthquake that was the Yom Kippur War. It is not, in one sense, a truly existential conflict: Israel is clearly the stronger party here, despite the grievous losses in civilian and military life, and the humiliation of having a score of towns and kibbutz settlements invaded, senior officers captured, military headquarters raided, and armored vehicles destroyed.

What will stick will be the videos of grandmothers dragged into captivity, children shot dead, young women stripped naked, corpses desecrated. For many Jews, the echoes are primal, and go back to the two-and-a-half-millennia-old Book of Lamentations: “Her virgins are afflicted … Her young children are gone into captivity … The youth and the old man lie on the ground in the streets … Thou has slaughtered unsparingly.” The scenes are ones that scar so much of Jewish history, from the massacres of the Crusades to the pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the ultimate horror of the Holocaust. They are deep and indelible in the psyche of even the Israeli who surfs on Saturday and doesn’t mind a ham sandwich; they will color everything that follows hereafter.

What the world should expect now is a coldly furious, enormously violent military action in Gaza, probably on the ground as well as from the air. It will incur heavy military casualties, and no doubt many more Palestinian civilian casualties, because Hamas has always, as a matter of strategic cunning, buried its command posts under hospitals, its arms depots in mosques, its firing sites in kindergartens. Under the law of war, these then become legitimate targets.

Israeli strategists will not only want to disable Hamas for years to come; they will pursue, as they always have, with mixed success, the creation of a deterrent reputation. After all, 2006 may have been a partial botch, but Hezbollah has hesitated about having another go at the Jewish state. When the Israelis and the U.S. discovered a secret North Korean–built reactor in Syria in 2007, the Israelis were determined to restore their reputation by destroying it on their own, and without saying anything about it. And so they did.

Strategically, there was something of brilliance in the brutal and cruel Hamas attack. It will probably blow up a formal Saudi-Israeli peace deal, and it may spread more horrifically if Hezbollah engages and Hamas cells can launch new attacks against Israeli settlements on the West Bank. It strengthens Iran and weakens the United States. But Israel and its armed forces will show a resilience that will surprise even themselves.

In the run-up to the destruction of the North Korean reactor, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent me to Israel to see if the Israelis were ready for what could turn into a wider Middle East war. I met with the head of the Mossad, the reserve general Meir Dagan, among others. In his conference room was a picture of Israeli fighter planes flying over Auschwitz. We did not speak about it and did not have to. I did not see the picture that hung in his office, of his maternal grandfather kneeling before being shot by the Nazis. Pictures from 2023 that are as horrible to contemplate will be on his successors’ walls and, more important, in their head and heart for a long time to come.

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