Why We Failed

Volumes could, and will be, written about how Israel allowed herself to be raped by Hamas on 7 October 2023. But to focus on the forest rather than the trees, I see two major failures:

The first was the reliance on interconnected automated systems to secure the border, replacing traditional human observers and patrols. In exceptional situations, humans can take initiative and act outside of the system. They can act alone when communication is cut off, and they can recalibrate themselves to entirely new operational environments that were previously unexpected. A military unit can be designed to operate together under centralized control, but individual soldiers can also fight independently if they must.

This is precisely the capability that was not designed into the automated systems that were supposed to replace traditional boots on the ground. The remote cameras, sensors, and remotely operated or automated weapons that were installed did not have the distributed intelligence that human armies do. Even after a surprise attack, human soldiers can regroup, make new plans, and counterattack. The automated systems could not. They were dependent on communication links, both between themselves and with a central control center. These links could easily be cut by anyone who knew how the system worked and which parts were critical to its functioning – and Hamas had excellent intelligence (I’ll discuss this further below).

The more sophisticated a technology, the more complicated it is, the more parts it has, and more possible avenues there are to attack it. I don’t have all the details, but I know at least that Hamas attacked cameras, communication antennas, and power sources, which allowed them to blind the system and shut down the autonomous weapons that might have stopped or at least slowed them.

Anyone who works with technology knows that the keys to reliability are backup, and redundancy of critical components. The border fence itself was not redundant and there was no “kill zone” alongside it. The last line of defense should have been provided by human soldiers. Perhaps this was the original intent, but in a disastrous failure of vision, operational commanders seem to have assumed the fence was impregnable and neglected to ensure that there was a working human backup in the event that it was breached.

Apparently, the soldiers of the Gaza Division were not adequately staffed or operating in a condition of alertness that would be appropriate to the importance of the mission. This cost them, and many others, their lives.

The second major failure was similar to the disaster of the Yom Kippur War: what Israelis call “the conseptzia.” The conception, in this case, was that Hamas was not interested in a major confrontation with Israel, that it was concerned with the practical matters of governing Gaza, and that it could be bribed by allowing the influx of cash from Qatar (much of which went directly into the pockets and villas of the top Hamas leaders), permitting more Gazans to cross the border to work in Israel, letting construction materials be imported into Gaza, stopping the enforcement of a no-go zone near the border, and so on. Improve their economy, and they will become less hostile, seems to have been the thought. There has never been a more incorrect assessment. In fact, Hamas leaders were planning the vicious assault for months, while they negotiated about work permits.

Israel’s leadership ignored the bloodthirsty threats that continued to issue from Hamas, ignored the buildup of its forces, and ignored the ongoing training exercises intended to develop their ability to invade Israel’s bases, towns, and kibbutzim (Hamas even built a model kibbutz that they practiced attacking). If Hamas wanted to improve the conditions in the strip, why did they funnel the cement that Israel allowed them to import into the construction of tunnels and other military infrastructure instead of civilian construction? Why were there recent tests of rockets over the Mediterranean? These questions were not asked or they were answered with a shrug.

Some of the Gazans who were given permits to work in Israel were in fact spies who gathered information about the targets that would be attacked on 7 October. Detailed maps of army bases, towns, and kibbutzim were found on terrorists that were killed in the attack. In the future, Jews will have to do their own farming and construction work, or bring in foreign workers that aren’t moonlighting as terrorists.

I’ve heard it said that there is no possible explanation other than a deliberate conspiracy to let it happen in order to embarrass Netanyahu. Our army and intelligence services are too good, they said; it must have been an inside job. But that’s nonsense. The more one looks, the more one sees the pervasive complacency, incompetence, laziness, corruption, and lack of imagination among our top people that gave Hamas their chance. Indeed, it’s too bad it isn’t true, because then all we would have to do would be to hang a few traitors. The real problems will be much harder to fix.

It seems to be generally accepted that “things will never be the same” after this, that we’ve learned lessons. I’m not so sure. Right now, we have no choice but to keep the politicians and generals who were responsible for the failures until the war is over. Have they learned that in the Middle East, the winners rule and the losers are killed or banished, and fight until we achieve real victory? Will their replacements be entirely free of the “conception?” Will they understand that Hamas and the PA are two peas in a pod? Or will they allow the Americans to push us into the usual stalemate, or worse?

Certainly the Americans are still committed to the idea of a Palestinian state in the territories, even if they have learned that Hamas – at least by that name – can’t be part of it. Moti Kedar said that the top leadership of our military establishment “speak American, not Hebrew.”  That, too, will have to change.

Posted in Israeli Politics, US-Israel Relations, War | 4 Comments

The Proper Objectives of the Campaign in Gaza

At this moment, the IDF is poised to begin a ground invasion of Gaza. The objectives of the campaign, however, have not been spelled out with sufficient clarity by the political echelon, other than by saying that Hamas will be eliminated as a military threat and sovereign power in Gaza. The following are my ideas of appropriate short and long-term goals for the IDF.

The first and highest-priority objective must be the restoration of Israel’s honor and power of deterrence in the Middle East. This is the part that is the most difficult to understand for the West, particularly by the elites in the US and Europe, but it is an existential condition for the survival of our state. A person or a nation without honor will not live long in this region. What was done to us, what we allowed to be done to us, was so shameful that today we stand naked, a target for anyone who wants to kill us, to invade our country, to take our property, to defile our women, to enslave our children.

You can say that this point of view is atavistic and uncivilized, and perhaps it is when compared to the (supposedly) morally evolved West, but we live in the Middle East, not in Europe or America.* The law here is not the post-1945 international law of the West, it is a code that has evolved in the harsh conditions of the region over millennia. It has been impossible until now for our own Israeli elites to internalize this, but one hopes that the viciousness of the attack on us – the worst since the founding of the state and the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust – will shake them out of their dream of living in a villa in the jungle.

So what does this imply for the IDF’s short-term objectives? I see it this way: all important Hamas leaders, wherever they are, and every commander, soldier, and civilian that took part in the terrorist attack should be killed. Not “brought to justice,” not captured and tried for war crimes, not imprisoned. Killed. Overall Gazan casualties will need to reach a level of ten times more than the number of Israelis murdered and violated. There are other important objectives for the invasion, like the rescue of hostages and the destruction of weapons and military infrastructure, but the recovery of honor – revenge, if you insist – must be top priority. Only thus can the appropriate message be sent to all the players in the region, and the rest of the world.

The long-term objective must be to ensure that this cannot happen again. And from a strategic standpoint, that implies that  Israel must either implement a military occupation capable of controlling the population and preventing the rise of a new terrorist regime, or she must force a change in the population to one that will not become a threat. Most of our leadership believes that an occupation is untenable. It would tie down a large part of our army, be very expensive, and provide a focus for continued terrorism and insurrections. But at the same time they shrink from the alternative.

Population transfer is anathema to the West, despite the fact that they’ve done it countless times in the past. But the tribal nature of humans implies that it is often an absolute condition for peace. Antagonistic tribes must be separated by natural barriers that make predation difficult or impossible. The Gaza Envelope – the location of the Israeli communities next door to Gaza – is not viable for Jews unless the hostile Arab population is removed or somehow prevented from attacking them. Israel built a barrier above and below the ground at a cost of a billion dollars. Sophisticated sensors above ground and hundreds of tons of concrete below were intended to provide a sense of safety to the people on the Israeli side. But like all Maginot lines, simple and inexpensive ways were found to bypass it, and Hamas brought death and destruction to the Jewish farmers who had trusted their leaders to protect them.

Some of our leadership seems to believe that we can sail peacefully between the Scylla of occupation and the Charybdis of transfer. The Americans are promising that they will help us bribe the Palestinian Authority to take control and that will solve the problem. The foolishness (or malevolence) of this plan is so obvious that only the most deluded or corrupt Israeli could accept it. As if the murderous Fatah would be a better neighbor than the murderous Hamas!

No Jew will return to live in the Gaza envelope while Gaza remains populated by Arabs. Not one. Are we prepared to give up the Negev?  That is, in essence, what the Americans are asking in return for their ammunition and diplomatic support.

On Friday I explained that Israel should force the major part of the Gazan population into the Sinai, where they will become the responsibility of the international community, which created the problem in the first place. The area should be secured by the development of Jewish settlements, and ultimately become a part of Israel. And for the sake of justice, land in Gaza and financial aid should be provided to the descendants of those Jews who were so cruelly expelled from their homes there in 2005.

* But Europe and America will soon have similar concerns, since the recent mass migration from our part of the world is bringing the Middle East to them.

Posted in Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Terrorism, US-Israel Relations, War | 4 Comments

Good morning, International Community

Good morning, International Community.

I understand that the Secretary-General of your “United Nations” is distressed about a possible humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip. “I urge all sides and the relevant parties to allow United Nations access to deliver urgent humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians trapped and helpless in the Gaza Strip,” said Antonio Guterres yesterday.

No, you will not be allowed access. You are advised to prepare to receive a flow of refugees at the Egyptian border, where you will need to provide food and shelter for them, as well as transportation to any country that will receive them. They will not be returning to Gaza.

You will be responsible for them, because you are directly responsible for the creation of the cultural pathology that gave rise to the outburst of pure evil that occurred last week. You are the reason that the displacement of a relatively small number of Arabs from Eretz Yisrael in 1948 was turned into a permanent and exponentially growing population dependent on the international dole and a festering sore of the most vicious hatred and terrorism.

While the millions of refugees created by WWII and the Holocaust, the breakup of the European empires, and the almost total expulsion of Jews from the Arab world were all absorbed in one fashion or another, this particular group of Arabs was encouraged by “humanitarian” policies to grow larger. Host countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon) applied true apartheid policies to them in order to prevent assimilation and to keep the pot of hatred boiling. No other “refugee” population exists for whom refugee status is hereditary. You paid for their food and healthcare, while accepting the idea that millions must “return” to a place from which a few hundred thousand fled 75 years ago. You paid for their “education,” while allowing it to become indoctrination in irredentism.

What did you expect to happen, International Community?

What did you expect would be the result of pouring billions every year into support for what is essentially a population created and nurtured to be a human wave to overwhelm the Jewish state?

Last week, the pustule burst and the infection flowed into our beautiful country, at enormous human cost. But we are not asking for aid to rebuild what your wards destroyed. We simply wish to be left alone to cauterize the wound. Over the past 75 years, you have demonstrated that you are part of the problem. We will not let you interfere with its solution.

Posted in Israel and Palestinian Arabs, The UN, War | 2 Comments

How Hamas Let its Amalekite Nature Spoil Iran’s Plan

Never do an enemy a small injury – Niccolo Machiavelli

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how they surprised you on the road and cut off all the weak people at your rear, when you were parched and weary, and they did not fear Hashem – Devarim 25:17

There is a great deal that is unknown about the horrific attack on Israel that took place last Shabbat, both regarding the methods and objectives of Hamas, and Israel’s failure to predict or properly respond. But there are some inferences that can be drawn from the timing of the event and from its viciousness.

There are good reasons to believe that Iran was deeply involved in planning the attack in a series of meetings between representatives of Hamas with Iranian and Hezbollah officials several months ago. In addition, Hamas used explosives delivered by drones to put communication antennas on the border fence out of action, techniques similar to those used by Iranian proxies to attack Saudi Arabian oil facilities. It seems unlikely that Hamas could develop the means to do this independently. But according to US intelligence sources, Iran was surprised by the timing.

Iran’s proxies in the region include Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. Hezbollah is by far the most dangerous to Israel, with an estimated 130,000 rockets that can reach any point in Israel (unlike Hamas, which has very few that can reach farther north than Tel Aviv). Some of them are fitted with precision guidance systems that can strike within a few meters of a programmed target. They also have large numbers of Iranian drones, as well as fighters experienced from combat in Syria.

Although it has proven itself capable of large-scale terrorism, Hamas alone cannot pose an existential threat to Israel. But a coordinated attack from Hezbollah, Hamas, and perhaps even Syria, Yemen, and the Palestinian Authority could, especially if Israel were unprepared. The main strategic objective of Iran today is to break through as a nuclear power. Perhaps the plan was that its proxies would attack to keep Israel busy when it assembled or tested its warheads. Or perhaps the threat of a massive multi-front war was simply intended as a deterrent against Israeli action.

Whatever, Hamas was expected to wait for the order before launching its attack. But I speculate to the consternation of Tehran, it jumped the gun.

The leaders of Hamas care little for the grand strategic plans of Iran. Once they had the tools in their hands to inflict pain upon their hated enemies, they were unable to control their blood lust. Last weekend was Simchat Torah, when the IDF would be at its weakest. There was a juicy music festival going on near the Gaza border (with alcohol and half-dressed women, a slap in the face to Islam!) that would be even more poorly secured than the nearby towns and kibbutzim.

So Hamas, whose charter calls for killing Jews, obeyed the First Law of Palestinism – “it’s always better to hurt Jews than to help Arabs” – and prematurely launched the attack the Iranians had helped them meticulously plan. And in keeping with their vile, Amalekite nature, they raped, tortured, and murdered their way into Israel, and out of the human race.

The precipitous action of Hamas is bringing down upon it an unprecedented response from Israel. I suspect that Hamas itself was surprised by its “success.” They may have expected that Israel would respond with the usual bombing of empty structures. They may have assumed that their arsenals of rockets hidden in schools and mosques would be unmolested, and that their leadership would remain alive. They may have thought that Israel’s Western sensibility would keep us from exterminating them. They thought wrong.

There will be no more southern proxy for Iran, and no possibility of a coordinated assault with her northern and eastern ones. Hezbollah will still be dangerous, but at least for now Israel is on full alert in the north as well. And the lesson learned in the south may incline Israel toward attacking preemptively in the north.

Posted in Iran, Islam, Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Terrorism, War | 2 Comments

Hamas Must be Destroyed — and Israeli Sovereignty Reestablished in Gaza

Carthago Delenda Est – Cato the Elder, c. 149 BCE

I read in today’s newspaper that there is a debate in Israel’s cabinet regarding the objective of this war. One faction thinks it should be to crush Hamas’ military capabilities. The other believes that it is necessary to completely remove Hamas from power as well. But I go farther.

In at least four previous conflicts, Israel has tried to reduce Hamas’ ability to fight. Each time, despite the destruction of weapons factories and stockpiles, the filling in of tunnels, and even to some extent the targeted assassination of its leaders, Hamas – with the help of Iran and the worldwide community of antisemites – has come back stronger and more dangerous, much more quickly than expected.

Now they have succeeded in carrying out a massive slaughter of Jews unmatched since the Holocaust. They have shown that the supposedly mighty IDF can’t protect its own soldiers, not to mention civilians, from a terrorist militia that can’t even be called a proper army. They have badly damaged the honor of the State of Israel – and therefore her power of deterrence. And they have proved to Iran and its Hezbollah proxy that their goal of removing the Jewish state from the map of the Middle East is not only a dream.

The loss of honor and deterrence is the most serious threat to the continued existence of the state since the first days of the Yom Kippur war. Iran is marshaling the forces of its proxies as it develops a nuclear umbrella. Everyone wants to support the “strong horse,” and today our horse appears weak indeed.

Israel must keep from becoming involved in a multi-front war, especially inside her borders. In order to do this, she must deal with her enemies one by one, quickly, completely, and on her own terms. The US has pulled Israel back from decisive victory over her antagonists several times (Henry Kissinger even said that this was a goal of US policy), and will do so again as soon as the public horror over the viciousness of Hamas dissipates. There are numerous media doing their best even now to change the discourse from Hamas beheading babies to Israel’s “disproportionate” bombing of military targets in Gaza.

There is a quick and permanent solution to the problem of Gaza. It will not be popular in the UN and with the Biden Administration, but the it will be the job of the leadership of Israel and the IDF to bring it about despite all that.

The main objections to reconquering Gaza and reestablishing Israeli sovereignty are 1) it will require a long and painful ground campaign, which will entail a large number of casualties on both sides; and 2) occupation of Gaza will result in a continued insurrection that will tie the army down and sap our strength.

I propose a rapid campaign, using the air force, armor, and artillery, to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, to drive the residents south to the Egyptian border, and to persuade Egypt to open the border to refugees (Egypt is dependent upon Israel for natural gas). The UN, the EU, and the NGOs would have to provide for the refugees and resettle them. This would be a good time to disband the failed UNRWA and treat the refugees like all other refugees from armed conflict.

With most of the civilian population removed, the army could use its firepower to advance quickly. A temporary military occupation would be practical. To prevent the reappearance of a hostile entity there, it should be settled by Jews and ultimately annexed to Israel.

While there is no doubt that the present residents of Gaza would suffer greatly for a time, it needs to be understood that this is an enemy population. It voted for Hamas in Palestinian elections, and while much of it finds the regime oppressive, the overwhelming majority supports its goal of destroying Israel and killing Jews. Its welfare cannot be the responsibility of Israel.

Expelling Gazans would violate international law. But international law must take a back seat to national survival. In any event, international law is not obeyed by the great powers like Russia or the US, by the medium-sized powers like Turkey or Egypt, and certainly not by Israel’s enemies. The double standard that demands compliance by Israel is a gift to Iran, the biggest violator of all.

These actions would permanently eliminate the threat of terrorism and war emanating from Gaza, and would restore Israel’s honor and deterrence in the region. It would be a small step in the long process to secure a Jewish state, but a necessary one.

The modern state of Israel was founded in part to put an end to the continued pogroms and depredations committed against the Jewish people in the diaspora. After the Holocaust, the slogan “never again!” became popular. But it has happened again. And it will continue to happen, again and again, as long as Israel does not take its proper place as a Middle-Eastern nation with the strength and resolve to survive in the Middle East.

And may Hashem help the Jewish people if we don’t.

Posted in Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Middle East politics, Terrorism, War | 1 Comment

The Catastrophe of 2023

I don’t have the words to describe the cruelty and brutality of our enemies. That would take a Chaim Nachman Bialik, but I’m sure you can find descriptions, photos, videos, and recordings of unanswered cries for help in other places. At least 1400 [updated 10-18-23] of us were murdered and thousands injured in a typical Arab Muslim blood frenzy. Some  200 were taken hostage, to be tortured over the coming days, months, and perhaps years.

Although the attack itself was a surprise, the horrifying nature of it should not have been. This is who they are, who they have always been, and what they do. A lot has been written about Hamas’ motivation. Did they want to damage the possibility of an Israeli-Saudi agreement? Did they want to encourage Qatar to send them more funds? The truth is simpler: they wanted to kill Jews as cruelly as possible. Yes, they intend to use their hostages to try to free Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, but that’s only an intermediate objective. The long-term goal is to kill enough Jews so that the rest of us will either leave or be forced to accept subjection to Arab Muslim rule.

There is also a spiritual/psychological objective. By torture and murder, by the blood of their victims and of their “martyrs,” they add to their honor and subtract from that of the Jews. This strengthens them and weakens us. Although most Westerners don’t understand this, honor is real, and the loss of honor can be catastrophic. It will not be enough for Israel to control the territory of Gaza, Judea and Samaria. To survive in this place, the Jews of Israel must regain their honor.*

I also don’t have the inside information to explain who in Israel was responsible for the failures. How was none of the planning for this picked up by our intelligence? Where were the helicopter gunships when the terrorists were pouring through the gaps in the fence? Where was the army for the first five hours of the attack? Isn’t the border monitored 24/7 by high-tech sensors as well as by human soldiers? Did we not learn from 1973 not to send everyone home for the holidays? I could go on.

There will be answers to all of these questions, and more. Assuming that the State of Israel survives long enough, there will be the Commission of Inquiry to end all Commissions of Inquiry. Politicians and military officers will lose their jobs in disgrace. Lessons will be said to have been learned. Procedures will be put in place. But we will not remain here unless we are capable, as a culture, of learning and internalizing some concepts that seem to have been lost to the West roughly since the end of World War II. For example, those of Honor, Enemy, and War.

Honor and deterrence are two sides of the same coin. If you do not aggressively defend yourself against the efforts of others to take your property, if you do not retaliate against injuries inflicted on you, if you try to guarantee peace by paying ransom, then you send a message that you are prey, and you will be the victims of predators. Israel has been paying ransom to Hamas in various forms for decades; this is the result. Honor and deterrence are achieved by disproportional retaliation, not by attempts to improve the enemy’s economic condition.

An enemy is someone who wants to kill you. The best way to defend oneself against an enemy (as the sages of the Talmud noted) is to “arise and kill him first.” Israel’s approach to self-defense has become primarily passive, not active. We hunker down in our safe rooms and try to ward off the blows of our enemies, as demonstrated by Iron Dome, a device that is both impractical (it can be overwhelmed by massive barrages of rockets and drone swarms) and economically unsustainable (each interceptor costs $40,000 while rockets and drones can cost a few hundred dollars). And then our enemies come on motorcycles and pickup trucks and drag us out of our “safe” rooms.

And finally, war is … war. The goal of war is victory, the imposition of your will on what is left of the enemy, such as was done to Germany and Japan in WWII. If there is no victory, then the war continues. A ceasefire that allows the losing side to rearm, such as those that followed the numerous previous wars between Israel and Hamas, is a battle lost. The policy of the US has always been to deny Israel victory, for some reason that is still incomprehensible to me, but at some point – as Menachem Begin realized when he ordered the air force to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor – Israel needs to defy the US.

If the goal of war is victory, then the policy of not attacking a military target because of the presence of civilians is irrational: the enemy will simply place its assets among civilians. The laws of war take account of this, and permit attacks in which collateral damage is proportional to military advantage. I needn’t mention that even this degree of restraint was not observed by the Allies in WWII, when strategic bombing deliberately targeted civilians. Israel’s excessive concern for the “optics” of its actions is exploited by her enemies – and hostile media and NGOs accuse her of war crimes in any event.

After WWII, there were large movements of populations as a result of the political changes wrought by the war. Hundreds of thousands of “innocent” ethnic Germans in countries east of Germany were expelled. Needless to say, millions of Jews that had survived the Holocaust could not return to their former homes. When Jordan conquered Judea and Samaria in 1948, Jews were forced to flee. Victory against our enemies and Gaza and Judea/Samaria must also lead to the emigration of many who are implacably hostile to the Jewish state.

So what are the chances that Israel will change her policies of appeasement and paying ransoms to those of aggressive and necessarily brutal retaliation? One positive sign is that Israel cut off the supply of electricity and fuel to Gaza (but not yet water). It’s impossible to predict, but one thing to keep in mind is that those making decisions, both in the political and military echelons, are the ones responsible for the present policy, and they are not likely to be replaced in the near term.

I do not consider myself a religious person, but it’s hard to avoid mentioning that the Torah prescribes a very harsh approach to Israel’s historical enemy, Amalek. King Saul was removed from his position because, he failed to carry out the order from the prophet Samuel to wipe out the Amalekites, all of them, including their children and animals. I don’t advocate killing either children or animals, but our enemy’s policy of using human shields – a war crime – will naturally result in more collateral damage. And we need to understand this and not shrink from doing what is necessary to win, despite the suffering that this will cause to enemy populations.

We live in the Middle East and not in Europe or America. European-style moral considerations are not in play here, nor even European-style rationality. In the Middle East, if someone hurts you, you take revenge – or they will hurt you again. If you don’t internalize this, you will not understand events here.

We are at the beginning of a long and probably vicious struggle, which may end with the destruction of Hamas, the death of its leaders, and a massive number of refugees from Gaza. Or it may continue, and move into an even more bitter conflict with Hezbollah, and ultimately the “head of the snake” in Iran.

May we receive the strength we must have for victory in all these conflicts, in order to preserve the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
* There are relevant parallels for the USA and Europe.

Posted in Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Jew Hatred, Terrorism, War | 3 Comments

Yes, it is a Coup

As I write, Israel is undergoing a carefully planned, well-financed, coup d’état.

Its leaders, members of Israel’s elite, including two former prime ministers, military officers, high tech entrepreneurs, media, judges and lawyers, supported by an army of useful idiots, will tell you that it is not a coup. They will say that it’s the government that is trying to effect a revolution, to destroy Israel’s democracy and install a dictatorship or even a theocracy.

They are either fools or lying. To begin with, Israel is not a true liberal democracy today, nor has she ever been one, except perhaps for brief periods. For the first 29 years of her existence, she was ruled by a single party, Mapai, the Labor Party. Her first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a virtual dictator. Later prime ministers were chosen from among the Labor apparatchiks, and some of them were incompetent enough to imperil the existence of the state. The opposition, led by Menachem Begin, was entirely shut out.

In 1977, thanks to public disgust over the Labor government’s failure to prepare for the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and the demographic changes in Israel resulting from the immigration of almost a million Jews forced to flee Muslim countries, Begin’s Likud party received enough votes in an election to form a government, and make him prime minister.

But control of the Knesset didn’t translate into control of the country. The elites that controlled government-owned enterprises, the army, the media, the legal system, the labor unions, the educational establishment, and everything else, did not let go. The “new Israelis,” mostly Mizrachi Jews, but soon to include immigrants from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other places, were kept out. I remember a song popular around 1980 about a singer who wanted to appear on the (state-controlled) radio, but was turned down because of his Mizrachi accent.* It wasn’t a joke, even at that late date.

The elites saw the demographic bus coming, and they knew that they had to somehow control the “barbarians” who would soon begin to take over by sheer force of numbers. So in the early 1990s, led by Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, they engineered a real judicial coup. What was called a “constitutional revolution” vastly increased the power and scope of the Supreme Court, gave quasi-constitutional status to vague laws passed by a small minority of Knesset members, and for the first time enabled the court to overthrow laws passed by the Knesset. A system of legal “advisors,” accountable only to the judicial system, was created, whose “advice” to every ministry and government department is binding. Now, although the “new Israelis” often elect a majority of the Knesset, the elected officials can be blocked from doing anything that the old elites don’t like.

The new system has worked well for them. The Knesset, the prime minister, and his cabinet, who derive their authority from the electorate, have been stripped of their power. For example, at least four times the Knesset has passed laws to enable the humane repatriation or resettlement of some 50,000+ migrants who entered the country illegally across the Egyptian border. In every case, they were blocked by the Supreme Court. Today the migrants have children whose native language is Hebrew, and they and their descendants are likely here to stay.

The issue of what to do about the migrants involved finding a balance between rights – the rights of the migrants vs. the rights of the residents of South Tel Aviv, whose neighborhoods were devastated by their influx, and the right of the state to control its demographic composition. This was the very paradigm of a political decision, one that should have been made according to the will of the citizens, expressed by their democratically elected representatives. Instead, an unelected court decided on the basis of the judges’ prejudices – which reflected their elite status and liberal worldview rather than the collective desire of the citizens of the state.

This is the “democracy” that the demonstrators who are blocking roads, burning tires in front of the homes of government ministers, shutting down airports, wish to “preserve.” This is what those reservists who refuse to report for duty are endangering our security in order to protect. This is why pundits are trying to damage Israel’s economy with self-fulfilling prophecies of disaster. And this is what the movement has – unethically if not treasonously – lobbied foreign leaders to pressure Israel over.

It’s important to understand that the specific proposals for judicial reform are not fundamental to the conflict. How do we know this? For one thing, even if all the reforms were enacted in their original form, they would do no more than return the balance between the Knesset and the Supreme Court to what it was before the “constitutional revolution” of 1994. In addition, the argument that rule by an unelected, self-selecting, elite legal establishment is somehow more democratic than that of an elected parliament is simply absurd.

So what is behind it? It needs to be understood in the context of the attempted prosecution of Binyamin Netanyahu for some very amorphous “crimes,” of years of anti-Netanyahu demonstrations, and especially as a consequence of the demographic shift in Israel, which is becoming more religious and more diverse. The secular Ashkenazi descendants of pre-WWII immigrants are feeling “their” country slip away; secular people in general are afraid that the balance between religion and state will tip towards greater intrusion of religion into their lives; and everyone below the top economic brackets is finding it harder and harder to afford the necessities of life in one of the world’s most expensive countries.
The leaders of the protest movement present it as a last-ditch effort (before open civil war, which they seem to enjoy predicting) to stop Netanyahu from abolishing democracy and establishing a religious dictatorship “like in Turkey.” They argue that only an all-powerful judicial establishment can protect minority rights – by which they mean the rights of minorities favored by the Left, such as the LGBT community, rather than those favored by the Right, such as religious people and residents of the periphery or Judea and Samaria. They play on secular fears of religious coercion and resentment against Haredim, whom they accuse of parasitism.

They argue – irresponsibly – that their concerns cannot be assuaged through normal political processes. The government, they say, has “gone off the rails” and therefore they themselves are justified in adopting any means necessary to stop the nation’s slide into dictatorship and theocracy. Normally it would not be justified to deliberately damage the economy, to lobby foreign nations against our government, or to imperil our security by refusing military service. But today, they say, the situation is not normal. Suppose you lived in Germany in the 1930s, they ask, would you have allowed Nazism to take hold without a fight?

The protests are becoming more and more punishing to ordinary people trying to get to work, to operate businesses, or to get medical care. They are increasingly pushing the limits of free expression, and often veering into harassment and sabotage. The police, in turn, are using more aggressive means to control the demonstrations. More demonstrators are being injured in confrontations with the police. But probably the most important is a growing movement among IDF reservists to shirk reserve duty. This trend, presently confined to units drawn from the upper classes in Israeli society such as the air force and the cyber and intelligence units, is extremely worrisome to IDF commanders. As I write (23 July) protest organizers claim that 10,000 air force reservists are prepared to join the protest by failing to volunteer or even refuse orders to report for duty. It would certainly impact IDF preparedness if they were to follow through on such a threat.

The immediate issue is a law that the government is trying to pass to limit the “reasonableness criterion,” one of the tools that the Supreme Court can use to block actions or appointments by the government. In fact, this law would have little or no effect on the Court’s power, since it has other equally vague criteria (such as “proportionality”) that it can use in a similar way. But it has become the focus of conflict. From the point of view of the government, if this law can be defeated by extra-legal means, then the democratic election that brought them to power will have been subverted. Power will have been transferred from the elected government to the rebels, who could use similar tactics to derail any government action. From the point of view of the protest, if the government is allowed to “get away” with passing this law, then there will be nothing to stop it from continuing its program to “end democracy and establish a dictatorship.”

There are various groups and individuals that are encouraging, controlling, and financing the protests. The parliamentary opposition, led by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz is naturally happy to see Netanyahu’s coalition in trouble, but they are nervous about the increasingly bellicose attitude of the protestors, and especially about anything that can endanger the IDF’s ability to respond to threats. There are several non-governmental organizations that provide organizational and financial assistance to the protests. There are ad hoc groups of former security officials, etc. And there is Ehud Barak.

Barak, a former chief of staff and prime minister who presided over the debacle of the 2000 Camp David summit between Israel, the PLO, and the US, has been one of the driving forces, ideologically, and financially, of the protest movement. He served as Minister of Defense under Netanyahu in 2011-12, and together with him advocated for attacking the Iranian nuclear program before the Iranians entered a “zone of immunity” after which an attack would not be effective. The plan was not carried out due to opposition from elements in the army and the security forces, and the Obama Administration. Since then, Barak has reversed course, aligning himself with the anti-Netanyahu side. In 2020, he argued that PM Netanyahu was attempting to acquire dictatorial powers using the Covid pandemic as an excuse, and called for removing him from power, detailing the precise tactics that are being used today. He also said that he saw himself as the best choice to replace him.

The Biden Administration has pressured the Israeli government to stop the judicial reform legislation, despite the internal political nature of the debate. It has also denigrated PM Netanyahu, following the precedent set by the Obama administration, many of whose alumni now work for Biden. Although smoking guns are hard to come by, I would be surprised if the protest movement were not being assisted by the US State Department and intelligence agencies.

At this very moment, three days before the observance of Tisha b’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples, PM Netanyahu is in a hospital having a pacemaker implanted after episodes of transient heart block which led to losses of consciousness. At ten o’clock today the Knesset will begin debate on the bill to limit the reasonableness criterion, and the vote is expected to take place tomorrow. At the same time, there are warnings that Iran’s proxy Hezbollah is preparing for war. It is possible that the Iranians think that Israel is on the verge of implosion and wish to take advantage of it.

I don’t think there has been this degree of tension in Israel since the Yom Kippur War. Will the coup succeed? Will Netanyahu manage to reassert control? Are we on the verge of a multi-front war which will make all the political machinations moot? It’s been said that the existence of a Jewish state today is miraculous, but miracles these days require both divine and human action. Now we need such a miracle; may it happen, speedily in our day.
*Moti Giladi, Korim oti Beber

Posted in Israeli Politics, Israeli Society | 1 Comment

Playing Chicken with the Jewish State

What’s really going on in Israel?

What are the massive demonstrations and disruptions in the streets, the revolt of the reserve pilots and the countless testimonials and petitions in Israel and the U.S. about?

They aren’t just about changing the balance of power between the Israeli Supreme Court and the elected government and Knesset. If they were, the parties could soon reach a compromise that would maintain a degree of judicial review and protect minority rights without prioritizing them over the survival of the Jewish state.

But that’s not what’s really going on. What’s going on is a power struggle between two blocs in Israeli society.

On one side, which I will imprecisely label “the left,” are the legal, judicial, academic, artistic and media establishments, along with much of the upper class, based mostly in the center of the country. This alliance is supported by the Biden administration and liberal American Jewish denominations. Insofar as it has a spokesperson, it is Yair Lapid.

On the other side, which I call with equal imprecision “the right,” are Orthodox Jews, Mizrachim, Russian speakers, the lower classes and residents of Israel’s periphery. The right is larger than the left, but the left’s control of the media and the legal system weighs heavily on the scales. The undisputed champion of the right is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel was a one-party state from its founding until 1977, when disgust with the Labor government’s failure to prepare for the Yom Kippur War and the accumulated anger of the Mizrachim at their paternalistic and exclusionary treatment resulted in Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister. When the left returned to power, it foisted the Oslo Accords on a generally unwilling public, which then endured the horrifying terror attacks of the second intifada.

That was virtually the end of left-wing governments in Israel. From then on, successful coalitions would be formed by the center and the right, many of them led by Netanyahu.

The left was shocked by Begin’s victory and depressed by Netanyahu’s continuing success. They realized that, due to demographic trends, they were unlikely to win a Knesset majority again. But they retained control of the legal establishment and used it to “protect” the country against the “excesses” of right-wing governments.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, the legal establishment arrogated more and more power to itself. For example, legal advisors throughout the government were given veto power over any official action. This veto need not be based on whether the action was illegal, but on whether it was unreasonable.

In another historic move, the Supreme Court handed itself the power of judicial review. In 1995, for the first time, it overturned a law passed by the Knesset.

Soon, the judiciary began to interfere in issues that were more political than legal. This gave rise to the demand that limits be set on its power. Were it not for one thing, that might have happened quietly, in a way that would be acceptable to both sides.

That one thing is Netanyahu. More specifically, the left’s hatred of him. As a result of this, what should have been a matter of discussion and compromise has become a conflict between the country’s two major blocs.

This is what lies behind the well-financed campaign against judicial reform. This campaign is dishonest and hysterical. If the reforms pass, opponents say, the justice system will be destroyed and Israel will become a fascist dictatorship. The economy will be wrecked, capital and tech workers will flee, the army will not fight and Israel will become a theocratic state soon to be overrun by her enemies.

This is nonsense. Even if the reforms are enacted in full, the situation would be no different than it was prior to the 1980s. If a compromise version of the reform were to pass, democracy in Israel would be enhanced, not damaged.

None of the reform bills have passed more than the first of three readings, so there is plenty of time to negotiate and compromise, and the government is willing to do so. The opposition, however, refuses to talk unless the process is frozen. The coalition believes that if the process is frozen, it will never be thawed, and insists that there can be negotiations during the normal legislative process.

In the meantime, opponents are ramping up their disruptions to the point that there are real fears of serious violence. The opposition sees blood in the water—Netanyahu’s—and can’t face the prospect of losing their veto power over the actions of any right-wing government. They have decided to keep their foot on the gas in the game of chicken until Netanyahu and his coalition blink.

What should happen is for the grownups in the opposition to work out a compromise with the government that will restore judicial balance without harming either side or the nation. This is perfectly possible.

What might happen is that the left has unleashed forces that cannot be controlled. In that case, the game of chicken could end in a fiery head-on collision.

This post first appeared on the Jewish News Service website.

Posted in Israeli Politics, Israeli Society | 2 Comments