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50 years ago, like today, Israel’s failure to anticipate a major attack rewrote the playbook for an entire region

1973 and 2023 — two massive Israeli government failures, and two moments when the Mideast’s future changed forever

In her memoirs, published after the Yom Kippur War, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir wrote that the surprise attack that took the lives of so many Israelis “will never ever recur.” 

Israel’s recent intelligence failure proved her wrong, with all the fury of a forgotten pressure cooker left to simmer for 50 years and a day. “What has been will be again,” said King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, “for there is nothing new under the Sun.” And though what happened last Saturday was certainly “new” in terms of its savagery, the worst visited upon the Jewish people since the Holocaust, the mistake that allowed it to happen was just another example of history repeating itself. 

Every intelligence agency — indeed, every organization — must work on the basis of certain core assumptions. In 1973, the core assumption that guided Israel’s military intelligence agency, known as AMAN, was known as the Conceptzia, or simply the “Concept.” 

The Concept held that Egypt would never go to war before taking delivery of advanced Soviet fighter jets. Since those fighter jets were not due to arrive until late 1974, the Israelis believed they had some breathing room. 

But that Yom Kippur, on Oct. 6, 1973, AMAN learned the hard way that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had concepts of his own. Once again, AMAN has received a bitter reminder of the dangers of following Conceptzias. They work perfectly on paper, until the enemy chooses to march to its own tune. 

Now, as then, that tune is likely to echo throughout the region for decades to come. 

AMAN’s 2023 Conceptzia had its roots in lessons learned from the First Lebanon War, which Israel launched in 1982. The architect of that invasion was Defense Minister Ariel Sharon; Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban called it the only war in history caused by a ministerial appointment. 

Sharon hoped to install a friendly government in Beirut that would sign a peace treaty with Israel. It was a well-thought-out plan. Israel invaded in June; Lebanese elections were scheduled for August. Sharon knew exactly who he intended to put in power, a powerful local warlord named Bashir Gemayel. And after expelling Yasir Arafat and the PLO, everything fell perfectly into place.

For the briefest period, in the first two weeks of September 1982, it looked like Sharon had pulled it off. But then Syria’s president Hafez el-Assad had Gemayel assassinated, and the entire enterprise collapsed in failure.

It was the first and last time the Israelis attempted to install a friendly regime in a hostile country. “Fight ’em there so we don’t have to fight ’em here!” is an enticing message, simple enough for a fortune cookie, short enough to fit on a bumper sticker. But with the First Lebanon War, Israel learned that strategy results in forever wars that yield nothing but death, mass injury and depleted treasuries.

In 2001, Sharon returned as prime minister to implement the hard lessons learned. In the 1980s he had been the man who expanded Israeli settlements in Gaza, and in 2005 he took them out. After evacuating all Israeli settlements in Gaza, the army withdrew to the 1967 boundaries between Israel and Gaza, saying any future violence from the strip would be met with violent counterstrikes.

Deterrence was the new watchword. But it was a stick that was wielded in tandem with a carrot. Under international law, nations are only required to supply their enemies when they occupy their territory. Israel carried out those obligations in Gaza admirably while it was an occupying power there, improving the lives of the local populace by most socioeconomic metrics: According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and the World Bank, per capita income in Gaza and the West Bank almost tripled between 1967 and 1993. 

Upon withdrawal in 2005, Jerusalem had every right under international law to cease that assistance. Nevertheless, Israel continued to support Gaza materially, continuing to provide essentials like electricity and food, thus becoming perhaps the first country in history to supply its enemies despite being in a state of war. The Israelis did this partly for humanitarian reasons, but also out of self-interest. The new Conceptzia, or core assumption, that guided decision makers was that Hamas would behave as a rational actor — not “fight ’em there” or “fight ’em here,” but, effectively, “give them incentives not to fight us at all.”

According to the Israeli human rights group Gisha, Israel sent more than 67,000 trucks filled with supplies — food, clothing, etc. — into Gaza in 2022 alone. Those supplies arrived in addition to water, electricity and fuel for a small power plant in Gaza. Additionally, close to 20,000 Palestinian workers were given licenses to cross into Israel and earn a living.

Yes, Hamas would always find ways to poke at the edges, firing a “drizzle” of rockets, or floating fire-carrying balloons. But, the thinking went, they would never do anything to cut off their only economic lifeline. Mostly, that thinking was correct. To be sure, there were flare-ups in violence, and even a few small wars. But the numbers of Israel’s dead and wounded dropped by more than 85% after the end of Israel’s occupation of Gaza.

That status quo continued for almost 20 years — until Saturday.

In the end, the 2023 Conceptzia crumbled in a hail of gunfire, just like the 1973 Conceptzia before it. Hamas, it turns out, had its own Conceptzia. Perhaps its leaders thought that with hostages in tow after Saturday’s attack they could dictate terms; perhaps they were driven by mindless nihilism.

But whatever they were thinking, they have done what no one in Israel ever imagined they would: destroy the old order that sustained them. The 20,000 Palestinians that worked in Israel will need to find another way to make a living. They won’t be coming back to work in Israel any time soon.

The repercussions will change the world as Israelis and Palestinians know it. Israel’s goal now is to topple Hamas, then seek some party, perhaps a pan-Arab force led by Egypt, to administer local affairs. And as for the border, it will remain closed until further notice.

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