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Israel's Tet Moment
The breaking of a cycle.
“Behind all this lies Israeli arrogance; the idea that we can do whatever we like, that we’ll never pay the price and be punished for it. We’ll carry on undisturbed.”
Of all that has been said about Hamas’ recent incursion across the Israeli-Palestinian border, the one thing that seemingly everyone can agree on is its scope. Even now, days later, the sheer totality of the events is hard to comprehend. This was a conflict that everyone, from the most hardline anti-Zionist militants to the Israeli ultra-right, considered to be essentially frozen. Its nature was thought to be understood. We now know that it wasn’t. It is this fact, above all else, that has made the greatest impression on Israeli commentators. In their words:
“Hamas’ surprise attack against Israel is the worst failure in the country’s history. It is more serious even than the failure of Yom Kippur. The surprise was greater, the ‘concept’ adhered to more stupid, the neglect more terrible, the blow to morale worse, the chaos crazier, the shock stronger, and the number of civilians murdered is the highest ever.”
I think it’s helpful to follow what Israeli writers are saying here, because they, along with their own intelligence services and the global financial press, are among the few groups with an interest in evaluating this conflict, and their country’s approach towards it, seriously. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the historical comparisons you see being made. Western politicians and journalists, seeking to prove their bona fides for the more politically popular pro-Israel side, have been in something of a race to the bottom in obfuscating the true nature of the attacks. They fashion it as random, out of the blue, completely unexpected. It’s their 9/11—no, worse than 9/11. There is no time to re-evaluate policy or look back on past assumptions. If there were mistakes, it was naïveté towards those we did not know were the enemy. The only thing left to do is to do what has already been done, but bigger, and stronger, and harder, and more cruelly.
This is a powerful narrative. For those, especially Americans, who have only watched mainstream coverage, it’s a remarkably resonant one. It will define the popular understanding of this event and its consequences now and possibly forever. It’s also wrong, and everyone with even a modicum of actual skin in the game knows it. When the attacks happened, all Israelis (at least, all of those not directly working PR for the now-disgraced government) knew exactly what had occured. It was the failure of a policy—or, more precisely, the failure of the policy.
This policy, which for the past decade was consensus for both the right and the center of Israeli politics (the left is nonexistent), was that of a low-maintenance, perpetual occupation as a permanent state of affairs for Palestine. You could call it the “Iron Dome era.” Every aspect of the Israeli state, from its domestic policy to its foreign policy to its political discourse, had operated for a decade under the assumption that the longstanding conflict was contained. This fact was supposed to give the country stability, security, and diplomatic openings with its Arab neighbors for the indefinite future. It was a powerful fact. Netanyahu’s reputation as the supposed architect of this state of affairs made him and his party essentially untouchable, allowing him to secure the title as the country’s longest-serving leader even a half-decade after his indictment on corruption and bribery charges. It was on track to enable him to remove judicial review in his country.
And it has just been proven to be a lie.
Where will the country go after this? Both Israeli and foreign commentators have reflexively compared it to the military failure they know best: the 1973 War, which was the last time Israel saw its delusions so comprehensively shattered by a surprise attack. This isn’t an awful comparison, and it will certainly do a great deal to define how the Israeli public understands what happened. But there’s another one that works a lot better. To truly understand what has just happened in the country and what could happen next, you need to step back in time and across the continent, all the way to the defining military operation of another era.
In comparison to the conflicts of today, the Vietnam War was relatively clear. Unlike in Israel and Palestine, where coverage has muddled the public’s understanding of the war in a thousand different ways, there was no confusion among the public as to what was occurring in Vietnam. The Americans and their puppets had a discrete interest: maintaining the existence of South Vietnam. The National Liberation Front (NLF) had their goal: uniting the country. And for the American side, the course of the entire conflict was defined as the country determining over time what was needed to accomplish their objectives. As the war went on, the requirements for “victory” became larger and larger as the Americans realized time and time again that they had misjudged and underestimated their opponents. This ordained further and further escalation, transforming the American role in the country from low-level assistance to the French colonists in the late 1940s to a “limited war” of half a million American combat troops in the mid-to-late 1960s.
Even in the environment of Cold War America, this became a tough sell. While the public was happy to accept the casus belli of containing communism, the rapid growth of the involvement began to raise questions. These questions arose early in President Lyndon Johnson’s first full term and would come to define the latter half of his time in office. By 1967, polling began to show that a majority of Americans disapproved of the war, and the once-wildly-popular President’s approval rating sank well into the negatives. Heading into re-election, the White House and its government needed to give people a sense of a path forward. So, in late 1967, Johnson began a PR push.
Some of this push involved broader messaging about the President’s credibility and the need to support American troops overseas. But much of it also consisted of direct messaging—and promises—about the war, all of which revolved around one central idea: that things were under control. Giving this pitch were nobody less than General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. envoy to the Saigon regime. In a national report that was “stage-managed with all the care of a Broadway opening,” the Ambassador and the General struck an optimistic tone. Bunker reported “steady progress” that he predicted would only accelerate. Westmoreland, for his part, said, “We are now in a position from which the picture of ultimate military success may be viewed with increasing clarity. We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.”
Then came Tet.
The first similarity you can draw between the Tet Offensive and last week’s incursion by Hamas is that, from a certain glance, they both were dramatic failures. If you take the perspective that Tet could have only been a success with an outright military victory, it was a catastrophe. This is true even by the NLF’s own standards. They were aiming to spark a popular uprising that would have toppled the Saigon regime outright. That didn’t happen. Likewise, if you assume that the sole goal of Hamas is to be a recipient of international sympathy, their recent attacks could not have gone worse. While exact details are hardly clear, it’s undeniable that civilians, including children, were killed and/or kidnapped by the group during the attacks. This, to state the obvious, has not made them popular.
Both of these things are undeniable, but to see them as the sole consequence of both events is hopelessly myopic. The sole function of the NLF wasn’t to kill Americans, just as the sole function of Hamas isn’t to win over the hearts and minds of faraway westerners. The other consequence of their actions, unintentionally in the case of the NLF but very much intentionally in the case of Hamas, was to change the security calculus for their opponents. This is what happened as a result of Tet, and it’s also what happened last week in Israel the second the hanggliders touched the ground.
To see what such a change entails, Tet continues to be a helpful comparison. It’s hard to overstate how immense the effect of the Tet Offensive was on public perception of the war. Overnight, it was revealed to the public that their leaders, from their ambassadors to their generals to their President, had been desperately, fatally wrong. Their understanding of the conflict was wrong. Things were never under control. The current strategy was not sufficient. The massive intelligence failure on full display left no confidence that the government could even figure out what to do next. Westmoreland, mere months after declaring that the end was coming “into view,” was forced to report that winning the war would require 200,000 more troops and the activation of reserves. The doves wanted out immediately, and the hawks wanted, in the words of then-Governor Ronald Reagan, to “pave the whole country and put parking strips on it.” Something was going to have to give. Afterwards, Johnson sought negotiations for the first time and was forced to drop out of the Presidential race. Both of the major party candidates in the election, including his own Vice President, would disavow his approach.
Looking back in the context of the attacks, Israel’s occupation strategy since the construction of the Iron Dome appears strikingly similar to the U.S. strategy in Vietnam pre-Tet. Generally speaking, the Dome appeared to be a wholesale solution to the Palestinian “problem,” just as the American presence was supposed to “solve” Vietnam without requiring negotiations. And for Israel, with the West Bank occupied and Gaza locked down, the only costs of the occupation appeared to be the periodic rocket attacks from Hamas that the Dome would mostly deal with. After this happened, Israel would bomb them until they stopped. Then, Hamas would wait and rebuild. Then they’d ineffectively attack again, and Israel would bomb again. This practice became so habitual, even mundane, that Israelis would casually refer to it as “mowing the grass.”
The idea of working towards a permanent peace, a question that once dominated Israeli politics, was ridiculed and mocked as an outdated concept. With their high-tech weaponry and unconditional support from the United States, they got to have their cake and eat it too. There wasn’t just light at the end of the tunnel—they were out of the tunnel entirely. The fact that Palestinians faced constant deprivation, humiliation, harassment and lethal violence from the Israeli state in order to maintain this “security” meant nothing. It may have never been a “limited war” for Gazans—not even close—but it was for the Israelis, so, in their minds, they had figured it out.
And it wasn’t just the Israelis who thought this way. All across the world, nations began writing off Palestinians as not only a lost cause, but essentially a solved problem. This, after all, was the basis for the Abraham Accords, wherein countries across the Middle East and North Africa decided that the benefits of normalization with Israel were more important than a Palestinian cause that they had begun to see as a fantasy. When Biden took office, there wasn’t even a token effort on his part to return to cross-party negotiations. Instead, his administration only continued Trump’s policy of using the State Department as a second Israeli Foreign Ministry, most recently with their efforts to normalize relations between the country and Saudi Arabia.
This was the degree that the “Palestinian problem” was thought to be contained. It got to the point where the Israeli government not only could believe it could act with total impunity, but that they could manage Palestinian politics like they were moving pawns on a chessboard. In a series of shocking comments made to police investigators during a 2019 interrogation about his corruption case, Netanyahu flatly described how he saw Hamas as an asset in hobbling the Palestinian cause. “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas,” he said. “This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.” Not really something you’d hear from someone who thought that peace could even hypothetically be preferable compared to the status quo. But this wasn’t even his most blatantly arrogant admission of the interrogation. Also speaking about Hamas, he said to the same officers:
“I mislead them, destabilize them, mock them, and then hit them over the head. It’s impossible to reach an agreement with them...Everyone knows this, but we control the height of the flames.”
Netanyahu did not control the height of the flames. Thousands of dead Israelis and Palestinians can attest to that. Just like how America was not on the verge of victory in Vietnam in 1967, Netanyahu’s strategy of low-cost, perpetual occupation was not a permanent security solution for Israel. And to be clear: I’m bringing up Israeli security as the issue not because it is the most important thing here, but because it was the sole purpose and justification of their entire regime of occupation. This regime was perfected to the maximum possible extent. You cannot starve off, spy on, and bomb a place any more effectively than Israel had been doing to Gaza over the past decade. Now, all of this has been proven to be completely ineffective in actually making Israel secure from attacks. Making this clear was Hamas’ main goal—they’ve outright said as such—and they’ve succeeded in it. Like the Americans after Tet, the security that Israel thought it had is gone. The issue they thought they could ignore has proven to be unignorable. They’ll try any number of short term solutions now, from leveling Gaza to outright invading it to everything in between. It won’t get them their all-important sense of safety back. No matter what happens, they will have to adjust.
What sort of adjustment will this be? Logically, there is only one answer: an immediate end to the repression that has given Hamas such a strong social base among the Palestinian people. Don’t just take it from me: Israel’s own security state has said as such, at least to a limited extent. Earlier this year, the country’s own domestic intelligence service, Shin Bet, warned the Israeli public that the breakneck pace of settlement expansion was putting the country’s security at risk. They were not only ignored but outright denounced by the Israeli governing coalition, who said that they were aiding their enemies with their pesky assessments of state security. “The ideology of the left has reached the top echelons of the Shin Bet,” one member of Netanyahu’s party declared, adding that “The deep state has infiltrated the leadership of the Shin Bet and the IDF.” The fact that the government so blatantly prioritized the ideological goals of religious fanatics over its people’s own security seems unlikely to endear it to its people, among whom the risk of attack has once again become very real. While public opinion can swing in any number of directions, it’s certainly easy to imagine Netanyahu’s centrist opposition, which are essentially the political arms of institutions like Shin Bet, Mossad and the IDF, looking far more compelling to voters than they did when Netanyahu was believed to be “controlling the height of the flames.”
Looking beyond this, the Vietnam comparison once again becomes helpful. While the Tet Offensive was a turning point in terms of turning the American public against the war, that didn’t necessarily mean that they turned towards peace. Far from it. In response to the war’s excesses, the public narrowly elected Richard Nixon on his platform of “peace with honor”, a vague non-commitment to a different and more mature look at handling the war. All it meant was the conflict’s continuation in a new, more politically savvy form. The war not only persisted, but expanded. There was still mass death. The difference was that Nixon, leaning from Johnson’s failures, managed an effective PR strategy that kept himself popular, the war in full swing, and the peace movement unmotivated throughout his tenure. A real reckoning of the failures put on full display by Vietnam never came. Justice never came. The war machine was only fine-tuned, not dismantled. America has continued with the same policies, with the same disastrous results, ever since.
It could also very well be the case that Israel will not get a Nixon, but a Reagan. Just as it has countless times in the country, the shock and horror of the attacks could lead Israelis to become only more vengeful and escalatory than they were even under Netanyahu. As Tet convinced Vietnam hawks that Johnson’s so-called “limited war” strategy was a failure, the end of Netanyahu’s Iron Dome strategy could very well convince Israelis that their only problem was not being harsh enough. It would certainly be in line with their historic political tendencies. And with the military’s highly-publicized support for the anti-Netanyahu protests this summer, it’s not at all hard to imagine that the ultra-right could soon construct a stabbed-in-the-back myth around the attacks. Such a strategy would be very much in line with their political philosophies.
Blatant failures can bring opportunities for change. Truly blatant ones often only result in retrenchment. In the case of Israel, where the potential beneficiaries of a Netanyahu downfall are either lunatics on the ultra-right or a military and security apparatus that only promises a smarter, sleeker, and more mature occupation, it is overwhelmingly likely that this historic shock to the system will bring the latter, not the former.
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