End of a Terrible Year for Israel (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- December 26, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. 2023 has been a terrible year indeed, an annus horribilis. Surely blame cannot be confined only to the shocking intelligence and military failures of October 7 . . .

A. Indeed, it cannot. There are even more shocking strategic failures, one after another, for which Prime Minister Netanyahu bears near-exclusive blame. A decent man would have resigned. A healthy political system would have forced him to resign. Instead, as we watch Netanyahu strive to obfuscate his strategic failures and the damage they caused in 2023, all we can do at year’s end is try at least to understand what happened.

Q. Failed strategies?

A. Here are three failed Netanyahu strategies mentioned a month ago by Ehud Barak in Haaretz: 1) Hamas is an asset and the Palestinian Authority is a burden; 2) the conflict with the Palestinians can be ‘managed’ without having to make difficult decisions; 3) we can make peace with Saudi Arabia and others in the Arab world while ignoring the Palestinians.

All are failed strategies devised by Netanyahu prior to October 7--in some cases years earlier. All were translated into intelligence failures that contributed directly to the Hamas attack. These were failed strategies for managing relations with the surrounding Arab world. We can add a few more.

One was “economic peace”, Netanyahu’s strategy for Hamas in Gaza in collaboration with Qatar. As far back as 2009 this was a Netanyahu election slogan. It magically assumed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was economic in nature rather than territorial, ideological, historical and religious. We saw how economic peace worked on October 7.

Another failed strategy was ‘creating facts’ by encouraging or permitting a larger and ever more demonstrative Jewish religious presence on the Temple Mount. This strategy was largely advanced by the extremists in the current coalition, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, and was cited by Hamas as one of the rationales for its October 7 attack. It goes hand in hand with another feature of the guidelines for this, Israel’s most extreme coalition ever: gradual West Bank settlement spread with the explicit aim of annexation.

These must all be considered strategies in the sense that they directly affect Israel’s most sweeping security interests and concerns. That Netanyahu himself may not recognize them as strategies merely reflects his failure as a strategic thinker, a failure that exploded in our faces in 2023.

It turns out Netanyahu’s Greater Land of Israel ideology is not a viable strategy. In the short term it catalyzes war and mass casualties. In the long term it will render Israel a non-democratic binational entity.

Q. What about failed strategies not for dealing with the Arab world but for ‘managing’ Israel?

A. Unlike any of the failed strategies discussed above, Netanyahu’s 2023 so-called ‘judicial reform’ strategy contributed to the October 7 Hamas attack by sending a message to Arab and Iranian Islamists that this was the time to strike because Israel had become weak. A domestic policy initiative was dividing the public, hurting the economy, and alienating the armed forces. By the summer of 2023, the heads of Israel’s security community were specifically warning the prime minister that the domestic crisis caused by his policies was encouraging Israel’s Islamist enemies to attack. Netanyahu, famously, refused to listen.

Here it is pertinent to note the link between the performance of the Israel Air Force in this war and the relevance of the pre-October threat by reserve pilots to stop training in protest over the judicial reform initiative. The pilots argued that a weakened Israeli judiciary would not be seen as capable of independently investigating alleged IDF war crimes. This in turn would expose IAF pilots to war-crimes charges in international judicial bodies in the event of conflict in a heavily crowded combat arena like the Gaza Strip.

Along came the October 7 attack and Israel’s response, and war crimes are precisely what the Israel Air Force is being accused of. Luckily, the war itself cut short Netanyahu’s effort to weaken Israel’s judicial branch. Israeli institutional judicial protections for the IAF are still in place (and in view of the astronomical civilian death toll among Gazans, will soon be needed.)

Yet in the ultimate irony, Netanyahu’s perverse propaganda machine now blames the IDF in general and the IAF specifically for having weakened Israel and invited the October 7 attack!

Q. This brings us to the actual conduct of the war. More failed strategies?

A. The longer the war goes on, the longer Netanyahu successfully postpones the political day of reckoning for his pre-war strategic mistakes. Eventually he will be vulnerable to blame for prolonging the war. Here, however, his push for continuing despite diminishing returns is also seemingly supported by the IDF leadership. The IDF has its own reasons for seeking battlefield achievements as a way of reburnishing its credentials after having contributed to the October 7 surprise by not providing early warning and a minimal defense for the Gaza Periphery towns and kibbutzim.

More relevant, perhaps, at a time when the jury is out regarding many aspects of the war, is the fact that for nearly 15 years of Netanyahu rule since 2009, he has not had a viable overall strategy for dealing with Gaza and Hamas. ‘Economic peace’ and ‘managing the conflict’ were by design strategies for kicking the can down the road. But toward what ultimate objective?

Q. And now that those interim strategies have imploded, what strategy does Netanyahu propose?

A. President Biden would like to know. So would the IDF. Note that Israel under Netanyahu entered this war on October 7 without a viable strategic objective. Netanyahu rejects the goal of a Palestinian state in Gaza and/or the West Bank. And instead: dismantle Hamas and kill its leaders? It is now fairly clear this will not be achieved. Rescue the hostages? That is ostensibly a tactical goal that has been inflated by an anxious and existentially traumatized Israeli public into a strategic goal, and at the time of writing it is also in danger of being not fully realized.

After all, the strategic objectives of dismantling Hamas and rescuing the hostages are not exactly complementary. So far the IDF has killed more hostages than it has rescued, while negotiating for repatriation of the hostages has been shown to involve Israeli compromises that strengthen Hamas militarily. Why should Hamas leaders whom Israel intends to ‘neutralize’ engage in hostage-for-prisoner tradeoffs? Besides, in a best-case scenario, what does Netanyahu propose once Hamas is dismantled and the hostages brought home?

Then there is the war aim of deterring Israel’s additional Islamist enemies, Iran’s proxies, by means of military achievements on the battlefields of Gaza. Here there is partial success: Hezbollah’s war with Israel is thus far limited, the Houthis’ war is drawing an international response, and proxies based in Syria are quiescent. Sad to say, we have learned from the 2006 Second Lebanon War that it is precisely the huge unintended and controversial civilian losses caused by Israeli bombing that, over the ensuing years, produce public pressures on an Islamist leadership that deter it from starting an all-out war again.

Finally, there is the war aim that Netanyahu specifically rejects: restarting the process of Palestinian state-building, as President Biden proposes. This is not a short-term objective: under the best of circumstances, it will take a decade at least to rebuild moderate and capable Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. In view of Israeli, Palestinian and American experience since the Oslo signing in 1993, it may again fail.

But this is a worthwhile goal. Indeed, it is by default the only half-way viable strategic post-war goal worth fighting for.

What are the alternatives? Transfer Gazan Palestinians to the Arab world or to 100 different countries (20,000 each!) as a few Israeli extremist non-strategic thinkers have suggested? Starve all Gazans because "90 percent are Hamas," as one renowned IDF retired general advocates? Reestablish Israeli settlements in Gaza? Also a bizarre non-starter. Endless Israeli occupation but, somehow, without an endless intifada and without endless global condemnation? Magical thinking!

Note that National Security Adviser Tzachi HaNegbi just published an op-ed in a Saudi daily insinuating that perhaps reimplanting the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip could be contemplated. Might Netanyahu be softening his opposition and ‘going strategic’? Or, more likely, is he by proxy placating Biden for the short term?

Q. Looking farther afield to the United States and American Jewry, do we encounter more strategic ignorance on Netanyahu’s part?

A. Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to prefer Republicans over Democrats. But he is the first to actuate his preference in a manner that openly slighted a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and Democrats in Congress. Netanyahu is the first to insult half of political America--and over an issue, Iran’s nuclear program, where his strategy of killing the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, is in any case failing as Iran nuclearizes by the day. With the progressive wing of the Democratic party openly and heavily criticizing Israel in this war, Netanyahu’s current government is paying the price in terms of US public opinion.

To what extent the American Jewish community specifically is paying the price of the entirety of Netanyahu’s failed strategies, in the form of anti-Semitism from the American political left and right, is an open question. Undoubtedly, the issue is far more complex and venal than just Netanyahu’s ignorant strategies. But how much influence have they had?

Q. Has Netanyahu, in your view, done anything right strategically?

A. Only up to a point.

Netanyahu can be credited at least partially (Trump, Bennet and Lapid also deserve some credit) for Israel’s achievements, despite the Palestinian issue, in normalizing relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Yet the next step, the normalization process with Saudi Arabia, is precisely one of the Netanyahu strategies that provoked the October 7 Hamas attack. It turns out you cannot really ignore the Palestinian issue en route to normalization. Nor has Netanyahu been invited, to this day, to visit any of the normalizing countries.

He can be credited for persuading Russian President Putin in 2015 to allow Israel to continue unchallenged its efficient ‘campaign between wars’ against Iran and its proxies in Syria despite Russia’s military presence there. Yet Putin has lately joined forces in a military alliance of sorts with Iran and has embraced Hamas since October 7. Trouble with Russia in Syria may be only a matter of time.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Netanyahu’s preference for ideology over genuine strategic thinking has on balance seriously damaged Israeli strategic interests, more than ever over the course of 2023 and particularly leading up to and since October 7. That millions of Israelis have repeatedly endorsed at the polls Netanyahu’s anti-strategic ideological approach is a black mark for Israel. Note that as we write he is working assiduously to persuade his electorate that nothing connected to this war is his fault.

On the other hand, that over the past year millions of Israelis have actively opposed Netanyahu’s approach and, after October 7, filled the vacuum left by his failures--not only at strategy but even at governance . . . is a hopeful sign.