The Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, and the inevitable and bloody response it has prompted, comprise a world-shaping catastrophe with effects far beyond the Middle East. As well as the physical and human cost in Israel and Gaza, the reputations of Western intelligence, weapons systems, deterrence, and alliances are on the casualty list.
The immediate blame has landed on Israel’s supposedly formidable spy services, which, in probably the most closely surveilled place in the world, missed preparations for the biggest terrorist attack in decades. But allied agencies seem to have been asleep, too. Their vast human, technical, and electronic intelligence apparatuses also completely failed either to collect the dots or to join them. Other state and non-state adversaries will eagerly learn the lessons of this masterclass in obfuscation. Some in the West may wonder if the financial and other sacrifices demanded by our intelligence-industrial complex are fully justified.
I think it is more likely that the intelligence agencies did find evidence, but political decision-makers ignored it because the conclusions were uncomfortable. In the US and Europe, the Middle East had slipped down the foreign policy agenda, to the point that the Biden Administration’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, was able to boast last month that the region was quieter than it had been for two decades: “The amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today, compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11, is significantly reduced.”
Admittedly, the story was seductive: Israel’s economic and technological clout was prompting piecemeal normalization of diplomatic relations in the Arab world, perhaps even with Saudi Arabia. Nobody seems to have wondered if Iran and its proxies, cornered by this process, might seek to give a bloody twist to the story.
Israelis also paid the price of years of failure by their leaders, most recently the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, which consumed political energy and attention with its divisive domestic agenda, notably on judicial reform, and treated the Palestinian question with contemptuous partisanship. The nation was distracted and weaker as a result. People in other countries with polarised political systems should reflect on the vulnerabilities such divisions create for national security.
However great the self-inflicted damage from politics, a pure military failure is apparent too. Israel’s defenses were wrongly positioned, ill-prepared, and fragile. That casts doubt on key tenets of Western military thinking, such as the reliance on high-tech sensors, and the supposed reliability of battlefield communications systems.
The West has (in some cases reluctantly and superficially) rallied behind Israel. Most countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have not. They see the Palestinians only as the victims and Israel as a settler state: a sign of how deeply democracies have been losing the global information war. Russia, swiveling away from its previously friendly relationship with Israel, hopes to exploit that gulf in opinion, blaming the conflict on “US hegemony.” Its own defense partnership with Iran and warmongering in Syria escapes scrutiny. China, a permanent bystander in the region, blames Israel for “going beyond self-defense” and is talking to the Saudis about a ceasefire. Opportunistic? Yes. But effective.
The compounded result of these failures — intelligence, military, political, and diplomatic — is that deterrence has failed. Not just Hamas, but its allies and paymasters, believed that the benefits of this murderous assault would outweigh its costs. If that assumption turns out to be wrong, it will be little comfort. If it is proved right, the implications are terrifying. Decision-makers in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, and elsewhere will be wondering what else they can get away with.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.