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The Failure

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Folks who study intelligence remain absolutely flummoxed by the magnitude of the failure of Israel’s intelligence community (IIC) on October 7:

At the root of this blunder appear to be two fundamental failures. The first is conceptual, as was famously the case in 1973: A false but steady and solid joint estimate from the Shin Bet and Aman that consisted of two elements: First, Israeli military and intelligence superiority would deter Hamas from initiating any major military act; and second, if Hamas launched such an attack, the Shin Bet and Aman would provide a timely warning.

The second and even more astonishing failure is that of collection. It appears that the Shin Bet failed in its fundamental mission and provided no significant warning regarding Hamas’s intention to launch a major attack. Its director, Ronen Bar, on Oct. 16 took responsibility for this failure, and his colleague in Aman followed suit shortly after.

The more that emerges the more it looks like a classic problem of strategic framing; Israeli decision-makers (on each of the intel, military, and civilian legs of the triad) had determined that Hamas was uninterested or unable to conduct an attack of this scale and thus simply ignored evidence of the attack’s preparation. Israeli policymakers also seemed to think that Hamas sufficiently valued its position in Gaza that deterrence-by-retribution (the idea that the fear of punishment would stay Hamas’ hand) would be sufficient to keep things quiet. The absurdity of this became clear on October 7.

There’s definitely an interesting trend here; intelligence services in Israel (as in the US and elsewhere) are invariably torn between “objective,” technocratic analysis and the need to serve political masters. Of course, all intelligence services are built for political purpose and serve to structure political reality, but like any other part of government they acquire apolitical aspects that tend to detach them from day-to-day political concerns. For right-wingers, though, apolitical professional expertise isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. This is thread that is common to both the neoconservative right and its Trumpist counterpart. Right wing critiques of the CIA, for example, have concentrated on how its effectiveness as a research organization hampers its utility as a political tool; the purpose of the CIA should, first and foremost, be to serve elected officials as they identify threats and decide how to deal with them. I’ll add that the complaint about an apolitical intelligence community isn’t completely without merit. “Deep states” are real and can have real negative effects on democratic systems of governance, especially when they creep out of deeply technical areas and into spaces of political contestation.

Assessment is of course politically relevant. You will never find a defense of Bibi Netanyahu on this blog, but while Bibi is undoubtedly the most critical point of failure it’s also clear that 10/7 could not have happened without a whole bunch of people doing their jobs extremely poorly. I get the sense that there will be an effort on the part of the Israeli national security bureaucracy to pin the responsibility on Bibi, but the rot certainly goes a lot deeper. Even granting that Netanyahu’s effort to stack the judiciary caused a long-running political crisis, the IIC still had a clear set of responsibilities that it absolutely failed to perform. None of this is to say that Bibi does not bear the greatest responsibility, only that the professional intelligence services share in that responsibility.

I can appreciate why folks think we can move on from this to a discussion of the rest of the war, but the failure is critical to what comes after. Hamas’ intention with the 10/7 operation was straightforward; inflict enough damage on Israel in order to trigger an extreme reaction which would, in its destructiveness, derail not only Israel’s attempt to normalize relations with the Gulf monarchies but also Israel’s broader technology- and trade-based diplomatic strategy. Hamas figured that if it butchered a sufficient number of Israelis, it could convince Israel to retaliate with levels of force that would necessarily devastate Gaza and in the process kill a huge number of Palestinian civilians. There’s no question that this is abjectly Evil under any definition of the term, and that the most likely result of the strategy was to make life far worse for Palestinians than it already was, but nevertheless. In this context, deterrence by retribution simply will not work, because triggering the retribution is the entire point of the operation. And if you’re wondering whether there’s some toxic masculinity involved here, the answer is yes. I have no doubt that a great many members of the Israeli IC took a certain pleasure in the idea that the threat of Israeli military force was so terrifying that Hamas would be too scared to try anything. To be clear, people are responsible for the things that they do, and Israel is responsible for the actions it has undertaken in the response to 10/7, as well as for the environment that it created that enabled the 10/7 attack. But Hamas’ strategy was enabled by the failure of Israel’s intelligence organizations. If Hamas fighters had killed a quarter or even a half of the number of Israelis they butchered on 10/7, Israeli leadership would have had more options in terms of a response that could have balanced Israel’s long-term diplomatic strategy with its need to avenge the attack.

A final thought: Israeli policy towards Gaza amounted to reliance upon fixed fortifications to resolve a political and strategic problem. The barrier, the remote machine gun nests, and indeed the entire political strategy of containing Hamas rested upon the faith that Israel could build a castle around Gaza and never have to worry about Hamas again. I think that the course of the Russia-Ukraine War has demonstrated that fixed (and semi-fixed) fortifications are not obsolete, and that they still play an important role in warfare. Nevertheless, no fortification is ever “fixed” in the sense that its construction alone can fundamentally resolve a question of strategic and political importance. Every fortification, from the Great Wall of China to the Long Walls of Athens to the Maginot Line, requires a dynamic, engaged defense that takes the opponent seriously. The Israeli national security state thought it could forget about Gaza, even to the extent of supporting Hamas at the expense of other Palestinian factions. This proved tragically, horrifically wrong, both on 10/7 and in its aftermath.

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