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A bitter blame game will follow Israel’s wartime unity

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Wars unite nations. The shock and horror of the Hamas attacks on Israel have brought a deeply divided country together. It is possible that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, may now form a national unity government.

Israeli unity will last a while because this crisis is very far from over. The fate of the hostages inside Gaza, including children and old people, will continue to torment Israel. The government also faces the risk of new fronts opening in the occupied West Bank or on the border with Lebanon. But, fairly soon, Israel will be plunged into a divisive political argument about what went wrong. Two failures will have to be addressed. The first is an intelligence and security failure. The second is strategic.

Israel has long taken pride in its intelligence services. It was generally assumed that nothing much could happen in Gaza without Israel knowing about it. But Hamas was able to plan and execute a complex and multipronged attack and storm across a border that the Israelis thought was secure. In doing so, they carried out the most deadly attacks inside Israel since the foundation of the state in 1948.

Both the right and the centre are primed to blame each other for the intelligence and security failure. (The left barely exists anymore.) As prime minister, Netanyahu is the natural person to blame for what has happened.

The prime minister’s working assumption that the threat from Hamas was contained now looks delusional and complacent. As he struggles to avoid conviction in a corruption case, Netanyahu has also formed a government reliant on parties from the far-right. Those parties have supported increasing aggression by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Army forces were diverted to the West Bank to contain the resulting violence — which weakened the country’s defences on the border with Gaza.

The Israeli right and far-right, however, have a counter-narrative ready. They are prepared to blame the opposition and intelligence establishment for weakening the security of the country.

In recent months, there have been huge anti-government demonstrations — protesting against judicial reforms pushed by Netanyahu that the opposition say threaten Israel’s democracy. Some senior figures from the security world have supported these demonstrations, and many Israeli reservists have been refusing to report for duty.

When the head of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence service, warned Netanyahu earlier this year that deadly attacks by settlers on Palestinians would increase the security threat to Israel, he was roundly denounced by members of Netanyahu’s Likud party. One Likud member of parliament complained: “The ideology of the left has reached the top echelons of the Shin Bet. The deep state has infiltrated the leadership of the Shin Bet and the IDF.”

The far-right will certainly repeat those kinds of arguments in the coming weeks, as they press for vengeance against Hamas. But Israel’s inquest will have to go well beyond the immediate intelligence and security failure — profound though that is. Netanyahu’s entire strategy towards the Palestinians now looks like a failure.

This essentially involved containing and “shrinking” the conflict with the Palestinians — while providing security to Israeli citizens, building the economy and normalising relations with Arab states. Netanyahu believed that Israel could cope with occasional rocket attacks and live with international condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

The Israeli leader rejected the argument that Israel would never be accepted in the Middle East until it made peace with the Palestinians. He argued instead that establishing normal relations with Israel’s Arab neighbours would help to bring internal peace — by cutting off external support for the Palestinians.

This plan was gathering momentum — with growing talk that Israel and Saudi Arabia were on the brink of establishing diplomatic relations. But that normalisation is now likely to be put on hold. While much western coverage of the crisis will focus on the horrors perpetrated by Hamas, the focus in the Middle East is likely to be on the suffering of Palestinians caught up in the Israeli strikes on Gaza. In that climate, it is likely to be impossible to conclude an Israel-Saudi deal.

However while Netanyahu’s Palestine strategy has fallen apart, it is far from clear what can replace it. In the current climate of grief and fury inside Israel, it is inevitable that the government will embrace a ferocious military response. But the Israeli government does not yet have any vision that goes beyond killing Hamas leaders.

Over the long term, it is hard to believe that Israel can any longer accept Hamas’s control of Gaza. But although there is plenty of talk of sending the Israeli army back into Gaza, that looks like a trap. As the academic Lawrence Freedman points out, the army “neither has the capacity nor the staying power to take control of Gaza. This remains a territory of 2 million people, and as they have nowhere else to go, they will stay, still angry.”

The shock and fury in Israel are reminiscent of the emotions in the US after 9/11. That provoked a display of American unity and power. It also led to a decade-long “war on terror” — which many Americans now regard as misconceived and self-destructive. Israel may be heading down the same dangerous path.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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