Exactly why Hamas attacked Israel when it did may never be known for sure, but a couple of reasons for the massacre’s timing seem plausible.
First, Israel’s accelerating success at improving relations across the Arab world has become a strategic threat to Hamas. Second, deep divisions in Israeli society could have led Hamas to believe the country was already precarious.
The Abraham Accords, a diplomatic coup largely engineered by former U.S. president Donald Trump in 2020, normalized relations between Israel and four Muslim countries after 26 years of inaction, bringing the total to six: the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Jordan. The Abraham Accords also brought onto the horizon normalization with Saudi Arabia, a key Middle East state – all-but assuring that even more would follow.
If that happened, it would no longer be Israel that was isolated from the Arab world but, increasingly, the Palestinians themselves – and most especially the “rejectionist” groups that practice terror because they are committed not to peace or a state of their own but to wipe Israel off the map, and Jews along with it.
Hamas may have calculated that a full-fledged assault from Gaza would strike a fatal blow to the process by forcing Arab countries to side clearly with them. But, while Arab states are dutifully criticizing the “excessive violence” of Israel’s response, they are not severing ties, much less going to war on Hamas’ behalf.
The more likely scenario is that Hamas struck when it did mainly because it hoped to exploit the deep rift in Israeli society between left and right. Israel certainly looked vulnerable. Reflecting enmity every bit as intense as anti-Trumpism in the U.S., Israeli “progressives” have been behaving as if they wanted to wreck their precariously balanced country.
Although the left has more than one aim, its most urgent goal is to preserve the ultra-liberal Supreme Court of Israel’s unusually extensive powers, particularly that of nullifying any piece of legislation its justices disapprove of. As Israel’s demographics – and electoral results – gradually shifted more populist and rightward, Israel’s left has increasingly relied on the bureaucracy, arts/media and the legal system, including the judiciary, to maintain political influence.
Unlike anywhere in the free world, Israel’s highest court can overturn any national law that fails to meet a “reasonableness” standard – a standard it invented and defined for itself. The court’s ever-broader use of its powers has impeded the work of recent right-of-centre governing coalitions. It has overturned government policies on a wide range of matters fundamental to a government’s responsibilities – like social welfare spending, natural gas contracts and who a prime minister gets to put in his cabinet.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his Likud Party winning several elections, was prevented from implementing much of his policy agenda.
In July, after months of fractious debate and bitter nationwide protests, Israel’s divided parliament, the Knesset, introduced a law restricting the Supreme Court’s power to employ the “reasonableness” standard.
Israel’s opposition walked out and the law passed 64-0. This and other proposed reforms, despite being ceaselessly attacked, would merely have brought Israel’s internal balance of power in line with that of every other Western democracy.
Knesset games are, however, tame compared to what happened on the streets of Tel Aviv. Within hours of the July vote, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets, blocking traffic, pitching tents, lighting bonfires and even blockading Israel’s international airport. Police had to drag protesters off roadways and use water cannons.
For weeks, the demonstrators upset the economy and alarmed investors. Ominously, reserve air force pilots opposed to Netanyahu’s government began refusing to attend training sessions, prompting publicly expressed concerns that military readiness could be threatened. There were even rumours that active duty soldiers were deliberately underperforming or threatening to desert.
Since this was all publicly known, Hamas may have concluded Israel was on the brink of mass political suicide. If so, then here too the terror group miscalculated. Its orgy of atrocities begun on October 7 – rapes, decapitations of infants, burnings, mutilations and kidnappings – not only shocked every Israeli, but unified the country like nothing else could.
Hamas misjudged the depth and nature of Israel’s left-right split. While Israel’s internal politics are vocal, personally vicious and at times unhinged, when a genuine threat to the nation’s safety or existence arises, internal disagreements are immediately deferred.
This occurred almost instantaneously. Suddenly, everyone was waving the blue-and-white flag of Israel. Atheists began preparing kosher meals for religious first responders. Jews across the political and religious spectrums and from around the world left their regular jobs and civilian lives, streaming to military bases or airports to answer the Israeli government’s call-up of some 360,000 reservists. Within a few days, Netanyahu had formed a unity wartime government that included Opposition Blue-and-White Party leader Benni Gantz.
Why is this so? Unlike Western progressives – who despise patriotism – both sides of the ideological divide in this growing country of 9.8 million remain deeply patriotic. Both the left and right are imbued with a sense of mission to save Israeli democracy. Rather than having identified a mortal weakness, then, Hamas’ Medieval barbarity unified the quarreling factions. Netanyahu today has unprecedented support (despite what the polls say) and can expect that to hold for the war’s duration.
Once the fighting stops but before politics-as-usual resumes, Netanyahu will surely face tough questions over the security lapses that helped Hamas achieve its catastrophic surprise. They happened on his watch, and Israelis are unforgiving of such failures. During the surprise 1973 Yom Kippur War, the country was solidly behind Labour Prime Minister Golda Meir and defence minister Moshe Dayan. But afterwards, Israelis demanded to know how their vaunted security and intelligence apparatus failed. Several senior IDF officers and Meir were ruined.
Netanyahu’s position seems eerily similar. Many are predicting that his fate is sealed. But were he to engineer a knockout blow against Hamas this time, rather than allowing the terror group to be saved by international pressure for the sixth time since Gaza was turned over to the Palestinians in 2005, he might just remain in office. If it emerges that the left’s undermining of Netanyahu and his reforms contributed to the country’s inattention and unpreparedness, Netanyahu’s standing might even grow. At this point, anything can happen.
Lynne Cohen is a journalist and non-practising lawyer from Ottawa. She has published four books, including the biography Let Right Be Done: The Life and Times of Bill Simpson.