Our Repeated Strategic Failures, or How We Never Learn from Experience

1. Failure to understand and respect our enemies.

Since before the founding of the State of Israel, Palestinian Arab leaders have been saying that the land between the river and the sea is Arab land, land in which non-Arab (and usually non-Muslim) sovereignty is intolerable. They opposed Jewish immigration from the turn of the 20th century because they correctly saw, even when many Jews did not, that sovereignty was the eventual outcome of Zionism. Leaders from Amin al-Husseini through Yasir Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas made countless statements to this effect, and repeatedly rejected offers of Palestinian statehood because they required the acceptance of a Jewish state as well. Jews and others with a Western outlook were repeatedly surprised when this happened, unable to grasp that the Arab objectives were not a mirror image of those of the Jews, who wanted a peaceful sovereign state and were prepared to compromise on land in order to get or keep it. For both secular and religious Palestinian movements like Fatah and Hamas respectively (although at the grass roots no Palestinian Arab movement is truly secular), the presence of a Jewish entity on what they believe is Arab/Muslim land is a painful violation of honor and doctrine. Over the years their belief in the absolute rightness of their position, their shame of having been victimized by the Jews, and their steadfastness in working toward their goal has only increased.

How many times have we heard that “what they want is to improve their lives and the prospects of their children?” That if only they could see a “horizon” of self-determination and prosperity, they would end their hostility to the Jewish state? Nothing could be more wrong – or more contemptuous of them. We are asking them, in other words, to abandon what they believe is their birthright to the land, to give up their honor (to Jews!), and to violate the principles of their religion, in return for scraps from our table. They would sooner die (and they do, often taking some of us with them).

Perhaps we are misled by the amount of corruption that exists in the political structures of peoples whose loyalties are primarily tribal, and think that the Arabs are weak and can be bought. Perhaps this is the source of the conceptzia that stupidly tried to buy quiet from Hamas with suitcases of dollars from Qatar, or thought that the billions of dollars siphoned off by Yasir Arafat would somehow make a peace partner out of him. Arafat took aid money to pay terrorists and fill his Swiss bank accounts, while Hamas leaders dug attack tunnels and built themselves mansions. But despite their corruption, neither neglected their main goal.

This strategic error has been repeated over and over, and has been responsible for two of Israel’s most painful failures: the Oslo Accords and the Second Intifada that followed, and the 7 October pogrom.

Give the Arabs the respect they deserve. Listen to what they say, and believe them when they say they are our enemies. They aren’t for sale.

2. Failure to Punish Those Who Hurt Us

We live in the Middle East. In the Middle East, when someone murders one of your people, you kill him. When someone invades your land, you take his land and you don’t give it back. Maybe you don’t agree with these principles and think that murderers can be rehabilitated, or that you can settle disputes over land legally or diplomatically; but the Middle East doesn’t care what you think. If you don’t protect your honor when you are victimized, it is a demonstration of weakness, and will be exploited. Recently the Iranian regime launched over 300 weapons including some 120 ballistic missiles at Israel, the largest attack of its kind in military history. The amount of death and destruction that it could have caused was enormous; only luck, the skill of our pilots, $1.35 billion in defensive weapons, and the help of the US (that we will pay for in loss of sovereignty) saved us. We responded by destroying a radar installation, to “send a message” that we could have attacked the nuclear installation it was protecting. Are we joking? They tried to kill us and instead of “rising up to kill them” as the sages of the Talmud recommend (Sanhedrin 72a-b), we send a message that we could have hurt them? That is not a Middle Eastern response, and it will be interpreted to mean that we are too weak or constrained (by the US) to strike back. This will encourage Iran to hit us again.

3. Failure to Maintain Deterrence

Israel’s response to rocket attacks and terrorism has tended to concentrate on parrying the enemy’s strikes rather than retaliating disproportionately (in the Middle East, the “disproportionately” part is important). While a purely defensive strategy (e.g., Iron Dome) results in less disruption to the home front, the enemy is not deterred from trying again and applying lessons learned from previous rounds of fighting. Psychologically, it normalizes the act of trying to kill Jews. A powerful retaliatory strike, on the other hand, makes the enemy pay a high cost for its aggression and deters future attacks. And it transmits the message that Jewish blood isn’t cheap.

4. Failure to Maintain Independence and Sovereignty

A small country can only control its own destiny by staying independent of any one great power or camp of powers. Such a country must maintain relations with all sides in the great power conflicts and play one side off the other. Israel successfully did this for a time, but by the 1980s, she was entirely dependent on the US, both diplomatically and as a source of military hardware. A key point of inflection was in 1987, when the project to build the Lavie fighter aircraft was cancelled. Today, although Israel’s economy is strong enough that she could pay for her own defense needs without American military aid, her procurement has been skewed for many years to extremely expensive American systems that may not be best suited for her needs (e.g., the F-35). It should have been obvious decades ago, and even more so with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that American interests may diverge significantly from those of Israel, and that Israel should not put all her eggs in America’s basket. But our government and military took the easy way out, and allowed the addiction to US military aid to grow. Today we have the American Secretary of State sitting in on war cabinet meetings, and fine-tuning our military tactics – and very possibly preventing us from defeating Hamas and removing it from power.

The Consequences

All these failures work together to create disastrous situations for the state. The present situation in Gaza is a direct result of several strategic failures. The failure to understand that Hamas’ top priority was always going to be trying to destroy Israel and kill Jews, and that its leadership could not be sidetracked into providing for the welfare of its population or developing a real economy, led to the policy of allowing large amounts of cash from Qatar to reach the Hamas leadership. But rather than using the money to build civilian infrastructure, it plowed it into rockets and tunnels (after skimming a portion for the personal enrichment of its leaders). The conceptzia contributed to the IDF’s inattention and intelligence failures that allowed 7 October to happen.

Lack of punishment did damage on both an individual and organizational level. The fact that the death penalty (or even permanent imprisonment) for terrorist murderers wasn’t applied led to the release of Yahya Sinwar himself, the architect of 7 October, as part of an exchange of 1026 Palestinian prisoners for one kidnapped Israeli. Sinwar was serving four life sentences for murder. Hamas prisoners developed an autonomy within the Israeli prison system. In a particularly embarrassing affair, some prisoners arranged for attractive female soldiers to be assigned to their areas, exposing them to sexual harassment. Since the Palestinian Authority paid salaries to the families of all prisoners, prison was more like an extended work assignment than a punishment to be feared.

Over the past decade, there have been several limited wars or “operations” in Gaza in response to rocket attacks. In many cases, empty buildings have been hit, sometimes along with a few targeted killings, in order to “mow the grass” for a few years. The government could justify this weak response to attacks that could have been deadly, because most Hamas missiles were intercepted by Iron Dome. But our passive defense did not deter Hamas from trying again, as soon as they were able to do so, often with improved rockets and terror strategies. The 7 October attack was the result of the application of lessons learned from previous rounds.

After 7 October, the government realized that our strategy had to change, and that only a true victory over Hamas would prevent future disasters. But since the beginning of the war, we’ve seen increasingly intrusive interference and micromanagement by the Biden administration, which apparently does not want to see a complete Israeli victory. Because of our absolute dependence on the US for military supplies and protection from Security Council-imposed sanctions, Israel’s freedom of action has been severely limited. Failure to remove Hamas from power will be a victory for Hamas in the war that they started on 7 October.

A similar analysis can be applied to our conflicts with Hezbollah, and of course with Iran. After the war there will be elections, and most Israelis believe that wholesale change is needed. It is to be hoped that the new leadership will learn from our failures and reverse these disastrous policies.

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