Ram Madhav
October 21, 2023

At Stake for Israel

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on October 21, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

It has been two weeks since the deadly attack by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas resulted in the death of hundreds of Israelis on Sukkot — a Jewish harvest festival. Israel has faced such situations many times in the past and it has come out stronger on each occasion. It will, this time too. However, the Hamas attack is not just another terror incident.

It has wider ramifications for Israel as well as the world — military, political, strategic and global. This was an attack on the image of “omnipotence” that Israel had cultivated over decades. Its ability to neutralise adversaries, tackle enemies that are four or five times larger in military strength, and the almost mythical proportions its intelligence agency Mossad acquired — all stand under scrutiny today.

Of particular significance is its intelligence failure. Its well-known external agency Mossad and the lesser known but equally powerful military intelligence wing called Aman and the internal security organ called Shabak — all appear to be facing the charge of a collective failure.

Hamas and its more radical ally, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, were successful in their counter-intelligence operation of pretending to be normalising relations with the government in Jerusalem by allowing more job permits for Gaza residents to work in Israel and receiving financial support for developmental activity in Gaza. A false sense of complacency was created in the Israeli system, which was over-dependent on its tech-int capability and ignored the hum-int factor.

The political fragmentation witnessed in Israel in the last several months over the Netanyahu government’s attempts at judicial reform, that resulted in political unrest, also created a conducive atmosphere for such an attack. The situation turned alarming when the reservists in the Israeli military announced their decision not to return to duties and air force pilots declared their intention not to fly.

This internal political strife could be partly responsible for the delayed response of Israel’s security establishment to the terror attack. For the first six hours, citizens were left to defend themselves before the organised fight-back by the military could begin. The failure to form a national unity government and the creation of an emergency war cabinet instead, on the specific condition that Netanyahu’s government wouldn’t take up any business other than war related, is another indication of the systemic challenge.

The strategic implications of this terror attack cannot be missed. While engaged in a non-stop conflict with the Palestinian groups on both sides — West Bank and Gaza — Israel simultaneously tried to build bridges with several Arab nations using its image of military omnipotence and technological preponderance. Egypt and Jordan had long-standing relations with the country, while it entered into agreements in 2020 for the establishment of diplomatic relations with other Arab countries like Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Even Saudi Arabia, the most influential Arab country, which stoutly opposed the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine for the creation of Israel in 1947, moved closer to clinching a peace deal with Israel under the aegis of the US. The deal, coming from the country that did not establish diplomatic relations with Israel until now, would have changed the geopolitics of the Middle East forever.

Israel stands to lose that advantage gained over decades of efforts in neutralising opposition in the Sunni Arab world. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was not only compelled to put the deal on ice, but also take the first phone call from President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran. A new regional order that was taking shape through initiatives like I2U2 to IMEEC (India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor), to the growing bonhomie of the Global South, will be the victim of this evolving conflict. With fires raging from West Asia to Eastern Europe to Western Pacific, the world seems to be heading towards what can be called the “Great Global Disorder”.

In a conflict that is live 24/7 on media and social media, politics of emotions, rather than politics based on facts, is bound to complicate matters for Israel. The latest incident involving bombardment of the Al Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza has already led to massive uprisings in several Arab capitals including Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Amman. The mood in the Arab world appears to be that while Hamas may be a tyrant, it is “our bloody tyrant”, to borrow FDR’s words.

Hamas and its cronies will do everything possible to escalate these revolts as they suit their geopolitical objectives. Hamas may try to fuel a new round of intifada in the West Bank and incite Egyptian militias for attacks from the south, while Hezbollah, with its arsenal of 1.5 lakh rockets, will continue to harass Israel from the north.

Israel has called it a war. This “war on terror”, not against the people of Gaza, but against the new terror avatar of al Qaeda and ISIS, must go on. Like the earlier war on terror, which culminated in the decimation of Osma bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi along with their networks, this war also should end in Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their mentors fully neutralised.

David Ben-Gurion, father of the Israeli nation, told his people that “the fate of Israel depends on two things — its strength and its righteousness”. Israel should display both strength and righteousness in this war. The majority of Palestinians are prisoners in the hands of groups like Hamas. Unlike in a conventional war, collateral damage will be higher in the war on terror as the terrorists use populated areas as war zones. Israel needs to be extra cautious about civilian security in Gaza.

As victims of terror, we in Bharat understand Israel’s pain and hence our immediate response to stand by the people and government of Israel. At the same time, we continue to uphold our traditional support to the “two-state solution” in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Finally, irrespective of the consequences, Israel will fight, because, as Golda Meir told Joe Biden five decades ago, “we have no place else to go”.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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