Did W. B. Yeats have it right? “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Such are one’s fears today. The United States government is a two-legged stool. Israel is at war, and I haven’t been able to reach either of my two grandchildren who are studying there in different locations. Where does our reassurance lie?
There was a time when partisan politics ended at the shores of our country. When a Middle East crisis (or any foreign policy threat, for that matter) would have the President of the United States summon to the White House the top Senate and House leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, for a high-level briefing. Given the severity of a particular situation, a united front would be presented to the world, inner fissures smoothed over, at least temporarily.
Now we don’t have a Speaker of the House of Representatives. Matt Gaetz and his small band of MAGA hoods have vacated the position, third in line to the Presidency. All the rest are on vacation. Thanks to toxic partisanship, we don’t have a confirmed ambassador to Israel or diplomats in other posts. Thanks to Senator Tommy Tuberville, most military promotions, including Chief of Naval Operations, have been held hostage to his unrelated anti-abortion position. Their lives in limbo, top-level officers are contemplating leaving service. Some have left and undermined needed recruitment. It’s not a pretty picture.
Meanwhile, commentators labor to find the right analogy to describe the historic failure of Israeli intelligence-gathering and basic defense of its homeland. Worse than 9/11, Pearl Harbor and the Yom Kippur War combined? With Hamas continuing to supply and replenish its forces still fighting inside Israel (some 1000 of them estimated to have infiltrated across the border from Gaza), with Hezbollah rockets fired this morning in the north from Lebanon and speculation that the West Bank could erupt into a Third Intifada, even experts struggle for a clear-eyed assessment of what happened or is likely to unfold.
Meanwhile, right-wing crazies like Sen. JD Vance and Cong. Marjorie Taylor Greene blame Joe Biden for causing this by giving $6 billion US taxpayer dollars to Iran. None of the Iranian money released in exchange for American hostages came from the US. It was Iranian oil money frozen in restricted accounts in South Korea and now transferred via European banks to restricted accounts in Qatar to be paid out over years with US oversight. It is to go only for humanitarian purposes, like food and medicine, in Iran. Not a penny has yet been released, but it is still legitimate to wonder to what extent the eventual availability of such funds are making it easier for Iran to use other of its resources for more pernicious purposes. Clearly, Iran would like to sabotage negotiations to establish a U.S.-brokered Israeli-Saudi accord and has long seen a benefit in helping arm and train Hamas.
Similarly, social media postings are abuzz with claims that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu knew of the attacks but looked the other way because the crisis distracts from his personal and domestic problems, permitting him to consolidate further his power. This may be too conspiratorial, but, as a Ha’aretz editorial pointed out, Netanyahu bears responsibility for “completely (failing) to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”
Netanyahu’s creating a coalition of naive far-right religious zealots and political toadies unqualified to lead a complex and well-functioning government has come at a price. Remember when top army and intelligence officers, seen as political opponents, were discredited and when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was fired for warning that the government’s judicial coup had undermined security?
An attack on any Jewish holiday (in this case, Simchat Torah) surely should not have been a surprise. Any sentient Israeli responsible for national defense should have been on high alert on this, the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. This was a humiliating invasion by a relatively tiny force, not a huge invading army. Clear warning signs in recent weeks (Hamas exercises) were ignored. The vaunted impregnable Israeli security wall was breached.
It appears that critics who have faulted undervaluing labor-intensive human assets, from on-the-ground forces to painstaking intelligence-gathering, in favor of sophisticated espionage technology may have been right. The multi-pronged Hamas surprise attack used low-tech methods (gliders, trucks and dune buggies) akin to the hijackers on 9/11. Could an over-reliance on the Iron Dome system for protection have led to an under-deployment of basic troops?
It has been reported that “the Gaza border communities were completely abandoned during the recent (Sukkot) holiday. Almost the entire Gaza Division of the Israel Defense Forces was in Judea and Samaria.” Instead of protecting the Negev, the regular army was in the West Bank protecting settlement outposts. Explain that rationale to the families of the dead and those dozens of civilians just abducted and held hostage in Gaza. Their presence complicates Israel’s retaliatory strikes.
Last week, Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan reflected on how the Middle East has been quieter than it has been for two decades. Not any more. The Israeli-Hamas War has just begun and will have major repercussions elsewhere.
The United States needs a fully functioning government as it deals with various global threats and crises, notably also the war in Ukraine and the horrific implications for the rest of the world if Ukraine falls.
There needs to be a serious reckoning in Israel just as there needs to be accountability on Capitol Hill. But it’s hard to imagine how all this plays out in either place with extremist sentiments dominating politics and undermining sound public policies.