The world is a harsh and violent place. Sometimes we forget that and must be reminded. On October 6, Israel in outward appearance resembled a normal country. The military threat from its Arab neighbors had long been reduced to manageable levels. A high-tech boom had generated unprecedented prosperity. Carefree young people danced until morning in the night spots of Tel Aviv. Israelis felt safe enough to invest their considerable energies on sterile political controversies, American-style. These mostly swirled around the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a sometimes Trumpian figure, who, like Trump, inspired wild apocalyptic predictions and acts of symbolic resistance.
But the sense of normality was a dangerous illusion. On October 7, Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that controls the Gaza Strip, burst out of its lair into Israel and began a systematic slaughter of the population there. Hamas rockets crashed into apartment buildings as far north as the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Hamas fighters shot at anything that moved, murdering civilians, carrying an untold number of Israelis back to Gaza as hostages—whole families have been taken captive. In one day of horror, more than 600 Israelis died, more than 2,000 were injured, and at least 100 vanished into Gaza.
Ideologically, Hamas is a direct descendant of the fascist regimes that brought death and ruin to Europe in the last century, and murdered millions of Jews. They espouse the Islamist equivalent of racialism—the presence of Jews in formerly Muslim lands, to them, represents an unnatural perversion of the trajectory of history. The only purpose of the assault was extermination. The strategic objective was to murder Jews. It’s unclear how deep into Israel the killers imagined they would reach, but there can be no doubt that they believed their work to be the first glorious step in yet another final solution.
The worlds of symbolic gesture and brutal reality collided most tragically in the desert three miles from the Gaza border, where a music festival was under way. It was apparently intended as a “rave for peace,” with the participants engaged in a typically youthful mix of idealism and hedonism, trying to change the world while having fun. Instead, they were massacred without mercy. Piles of corpses have been discovered by the Israeli military; hundreds may have died there.
Videos of the attack are sickening. In one, a female student can be heard screaming, “Don’t kill me,” as she’s led off to her fate. In another, the naked body of a young girl, murdered and probably raped by her captors, lies sprawled across the back of a truck. A black-clad Hamas gunman drapes his leg across the body as if to convey the insignificance of the unbeliever’s death. The crowd in Gaza gazes on the twisted corpse and cheers ecstatically, “God is great.” The video was evidently posted by a Palestinian. It was meant as a boast.
The Israeli intelligence services and military were caught completely unprepared; many paid for the failure with their lives. They are the best at their jobs in the world, in my experience, so I can only wonder whether they, too, were lulled into slumber by a false sense of normality and by an obsession with domestic political infighting. That would be a depressing break with reality. A nation of Jews—a people on whose flesh the reminders of human cruelty have most often been inscribed—will never be considered normal. If Israeli intelligence has forgotten that fact, it has forgotten everything.
A chorus of media voices is prophesying Netanyahu’s downfall as a consequence of the disaster. Others worry that a fearful population may rally around the prime minister. I find it hard to believe that the Israelis will descend to such mindless tribalism in a moment of existential threat. A political reckoning will come in time. The all-too-vigorous spirit of Israeli democracy will demand it. But what lies immediately ahead isn’t politics but war.
Hamas is utterly dependent on Iran for training and equipment. Considerable evidence suggests that the Iranians were directly involved in planning the attack. In a real sense, Hamas is merely a proxy that allows the ayatollahs to vent their implacable hostility to Israel. This means that the war will begin in Gaza but is likely to spread to Syria and Iran itself. The Middle East, at present, badly needs management by a great power endowed with clear strategic thinking. Too bad all we have is Joe Biden.
The Obama-Biden foreign policy rests on the premise that a “rules-based world order” will emerge if the United States assumes a posture of apologetic weakness. It’s a call for delusion and retreat. The Biden administration has been anxious to please the Iranians, and it recently released $6 billion of frozen assets to ransom Americans hostages held by Tehran. Political pressure will now be felt to confront Iran. This will push against the grain of the Biden crowd in at least two ways. First, it will require action based on national interest rather than gaseous abstractions. Second, it will mean supporting Netanyahu, whom Biden despises, while opposing the Iranians, whom he wishes to befriend.
The administration’s reflexive response to the slaughter was to “urge both sides to refrain from violence and retaliatory attacks.” That was withdrawn in favor of more fulsome support for Israel. A cascade of pro-Israel sympathy has poured out from the governments of nations big and small. It’s a generous but time-limited recognition of reality. Today, the Israelis are the victims: their blood is still warm on the desert dust. A month from now, however, or even sooner, they will be the destroyers of Gaza. The Palestinians will post videos of mangled children and bombed-out hospitals. They have done this before.
The cynic in me suspects that the democratic nations can’t endure such an overdose of reality. Their governments will return the Jews to their default position, as scapegoats of the world. At that point, Israel will desperately need the U.S. as a shield and an ally. One can only hope that President Biden is up to that task—and that he would be willing to perform it.
Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images