A multifaceted failure

The Israeli lack of preparedness for, and weak initial response to, the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 encompassed four key failures. First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict crumbled. While never officially articulated, Netanyahu’s approach since 2009 had involved sidelining the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and allowing the strengthening of Hamas in Gaza, within certain limits.

This approach enabled Netanyahu to avoid meaningful negotiations with the PA, which might have led to the establishment of a Palestinian state, a prospect he opposes. The ascent of Hamas in Gaza aided Netanyahu in his effort to fragment the Palestinian national movement. It also allowed him to claim he could not negotiate with a significant part of the Palestinian national movement, due to its extremist Islamist rejectionist stance. The combined effect was that Netanyahu did not face significant international pressure to resume talks with the Palestinians. Moreover, the state of affairs limited international efforts (in particular by the European Union and the United States) to advance Palestinian unification. Due to Hamas’ nature, such efforts were deemed too sensitive.

The prime minister’s policy went largely unchallenged for over a decade, in part because it wasn’t fully disclosed. Ongoing clashes with Hamas every few years signaled deep hostility between the parties; although behind closed doors, Netanyahu admitted that the status quo, including Qatari funding to Hamas, serves his policies. In a 2019 Likud faction meeting, the prime minister said that if one opposes a Palestinian state, he should favor the (Israeli approved) Qatari transfer of funds to Hamas in Gaza because maintaining the wedge between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Shifting political conditions in Israel — such as the decline of the Israeli left, which had been advocating for a two-state solution — further helped the prime minister. Finally, Netanyahu’s increasingly populist leadership style led to the removal of strong figures who might have dissented in both his party and the cabinet.

The second pillar of the Oct. 7 debacle was the intelligence failure. Israeli security agencies, especially the Directorate of Military Intelligence (AMAN) and the Israeli Security Agency (SHABAK, also widely known as Shin Bet), acknowledged their shortcomings. SHABAK’s head, Ronen Bar, took responsibility on Oct. 16, followed a day later by Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliwa of AMAN. The intelligence failure was systemic. At a strategic level, Israel misunderstood Hamas’ goals, with some in the security establishment wrongly believing that the necessity for quasi-sovereignty in Gaza would make the organization more pragmatic and potentially alter its ideology. The 2017 policy paper released by Hamas was viewed by some in Israel and abroad as a potential sign of change. Hamas’ choice not to engage Israel during its two last major armed clashes with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza were regarded by many in Israel as further proof of Hamas’ pragmatic approach. Additionally, Israel’s security agencies failed to anticipate the attack pattern and its timing. The bitter taste of failure in Israel is especially pronounced, considering that the country’s intelligence agencies have enjoyed ample resources and demonstrated their effectiveness in near and distant arenas for decades. As in previous Israeli and international intelligence failures, it seems that Israel had some information, but its intelligence agencies did not piece it together and issue a warning.

The third aspect of the failure pertained to the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) operational preparedness. It appears that the organization lacked clear plans for how to handle such a widespread attack. Israel was caught off guard by the large and brutal assaults on civilian communities, or the massive rave party that took place near the border. Another surprise was Hamas’ influence campaign accompanying the attacks, which included the extensive use of cameras by the attackers, documenting their actions, which members of the international human rights community have already begun to identify as war crimes. Others in the international community, such as U.S. President Joe Biden, compared Hamas’ actions to the brutality displayed by ISIS. Israel was further taken aback by some of the tactical military aspects of the attack, including the dismantling of sensors, assaults on Israeli command-and-control posts, and the easy breach of the barrier constructed on the Israel-Gaza border.

The fourth failure involved the state’s weak response to the crisis, at least in the initial phase. Many Israelis were deeply disappointed by the military’s inability to come to the aid of the 1,000 civilians who were murdered, the thousands wounded, and the approximately 220 abducted to Gaza. In some cases, military forces were only able to retake control more than 24 hours after the attack began. This general sense of ineptitude was accompanied by an underwhelming leadership response, including in providing information and reassuring the public as the crisis unfolded, facilitating the absorption of internally displaced people, or offering financial support and social services. The prime minister, normally a brilliant speaker, did not effectively engage with the public and — to date — has yet to take any responsibility for what transpired on his watch.

From failure to recovery: Preliminary implications

As of this writing, the crisis is still unfolding, and any assessment of the Israeli recovery is subject to changing realities, particularly the question of an Israeli ground operation in Gaza and a potential larger conflict with Hezbollah. Even in this preliminary phase, however, it is possible to make some observations about the Israeli response.

Overall, Israel responded to the consequences of the terrorist strike quite swiftly, although the recovery is not uniform on all fronts.  Both external and non-state actors, such as the United States and Israeli civil society, are already playing crucial roles in the recovery.

At the political level, serious discussions about the broader strategy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not occurred yet, as far as it is known. Much of the focus right now is on the impending ground operation in Gaza. But a significant institutional change has been the creation of an emergency war cabinet that includes two opposition leaders and retired generals, Benny Gantz (as a full member) and Gadi Eisenkot (as an observer), bringing experience and moderation into the decision-making process.

No information exists for now about potential changes being made to the intelligence process and organization. Past failures, such as the lack of early warning prior to the combined Egyptian-Syrian attack in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, led to reforms of the intelligence community — yet those were mostly implemented after the fighting ended.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist strikes, Israeli operational failures were mitigated by initiatives taken by soldiers and citizens on the ground, fueled by an independent, self-driven Israeli ethos. The IDF, for example, encourages both its non-commissioned (NCOs) and commissioned officers to take the initiative, when possible, as opposed to adhering to a strict top-down model of military operations. When responding to the Hamas attacks, therefore, soldiers and local self-defense units improvised tactics and force deployments, blunting the edge of the deadly militant incursions in some locations. Dozens of former military personnel, including at least three long-retired brigadier generals in their 60s, rushed to the front lines to fight, organize forces, and rescue civilians under fire in the first few hours of the attack. This was followed by an effective call-up of at least 350,000 reserve soldiers, who were swiftly deployed, mostly in the south, in preparation for a ground assault on Gaza or in the north to deter and, if need be, assault Hezbollah.

Many Israelis who were released from reserve service volunteered or joined newly formed local self-defense efforts in various communities across the country. The Israeli public showed overwhelming support for the troops. Citizens organized to raise funds and purchase (and import if needed) non-lethal items that were lacking, ranging from protective gear to rain jackets. Israel’s agile approach, even among the bureaucracy, allowed for a rather smooth integration of these efforts with the official supply chains.

Israel also quickly launched a massive targeting operation in the Gaza Strip to punish and deter Hamas and prepare for the ground assault. According to Palestinian sources, at least 4,600 people have been killed in the strip since the Hamas surprise attack. Public comments by U.S. President Biden, reminding Israel that democracies should follow the rule of law, will add to the tension Israeli leaders already face, between public rage over the massacre of over 1,000 Israeli civilians and the massive hostage-taking on the one hand, and the professional and moral ethos held by many Israelis, including in the military, about the need to respond proportionally on the other.

Finally, Israel’s operational horizon expanded with steadfast American, and European support. Since the Hamas attack, U.S. President Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, German Chancellor Olaf Shultz, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides all visited Israel. Most of them committed publicly to assist it. French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte are expected to follow shortly. The U.S. deployed a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean, and a second one is on its way to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. was also quick to resupply Israel with munitions and possibly other materiel. Alongside the reassurance aspect, the U.S. and European embrace also means that Israel will need to take their concerns into account as the crisis unfolds, particularly upon the expected entry of Israeli ground forces into Gaza.

Israeli civil society has responded to the void left by the state. Multiple organizations and individuals directed all their energies to support fellow citizens and national efforts, such as advocating for Israel in the media and social networks. Among these, the newly formed networks and organizations that led the nation-wide protests earlier in the year against the government’s plans to overhaul the legal system and weaken liberal democracy played a significant role. Two organizations, Brothers in Arms and Women Building an Alternative, created within a few days a massive operation that, among other things, supports relocated citizens, bereaved families, families of abducted civilians, and the armed forces. Such initiatives are likely to provide momentum, institutionalized structures, and popular legitimacy for a more liberal direction in internal Israeli public affairs once the crisis is over.


Arab-Israeli wars and clashes in the past have led to significant changes once the violence subsided. For example, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war set the stage for the Israeli-Egyptian peace in 1979, and the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1991) played a crucial role in paving the way for the Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) peace deal in 1993. Despite Israelis being unable to tolerate a Hamas threat on their border after the brutal Oct. 7 attacks, there is a growing realization that engaging with the Palestinian issue is necessary. This could potentially involve encouraging the PA to return to Gaza. Similar to the late 1970s and early 1990s, seizing such an opportunity would require visionary and committed international, mostly American, involvement.

The crisis is also anticipated to bring about changes in Israel. Past events, notably the trauma of the 1973 war (that also began with a surprise attack), resulted in the toppling of the leading party after 44 years in power. The crisis of the 1973 war further led to multiple societal and political reform efforts. Early indicators suggest that similar processes are underway in Israel today. While primarily internal, various inputs from international actors, such as the American Jewish community, could influence some of these efforts and reforms.


Ehud (Udi) Eiran is a Senior Lecturer (U.S. Associate Professor) in the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa. He is a former assistant to Israel’s foreign policy advisor to the prime minister. He currently serves as a board member of Mitvim — the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and he is an expert-affiliate with Diplomeds: The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy.

Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

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