Shortly after the sirens went off in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, I sat in an improvised home shelter listening to the boom of rockets fired from Gaza and the response of Israel's vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system. The windows of the house rattled. The voices of the Israeli radio reporters, usually exuding certainty, sounded confused. This was not supposed to be happening.
My first thought went to Ramadan, 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a sneak attack on Israel. Israel had regarded itself as an impregnable fortress. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the legendary Sabra war hero, inspected the battlefield and reported to a befuddled Prime Minister Golda Meir. "The third temple (Israel) is in danger of falling." The country was shaken. "Never again," Israelis promised themselves after military disaster was narrowly averted. Tuesday night in Tel Aviv sure felt like a "never again" moment.
Hamas has been bombing Israeli towns along its border, off and on, for more than 15 years. From time to time, Israel responded with a limited retaliatory operation that calmed things down until the next round. Each time, Israeli leaders assured the public that their army, equipped with infallible military intelligence, and defended by high-tech anti-missile defense and a multi-billion dollar state-of-the-art border wall, would keep them safe. Israel would simply apply more force until Hamas and Islamic Jihad once again backed down.
On Tuesday around midnight, Benjamin Netanyahu, the architect of this passive-aggressive strategy and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the general who implemented it during his tenure as military chief of staff, promised the same old solutions. The Israeli military would destroy their bases. "Their blood is on their own heads," said Netanyahu menacingly. Gantz echoed the threats and implored the public to follow civil defense measures, such as gathering in shelters.
No reporters were present to ask the obvious questions. Why, for example, just two days earlier, did the IDF general staff reportedly assess that Hamas did not intend to attack? How did the world's best intelligence miss that? How, after years of blockade, did Hamas acquire thousands of accurate, long-range missiles and the command-and-control to use them effectively? And why, after investing billions in a border wall built to prevent, among other things, maritime incursion, were Israeli soldiers armed with rifles stationed on the beaches near Gaza?
A bigger question is: What is Israel's strategy? Netanyahu, the brains behind the current doctrine, has said repeatedly that Israel's army, "the strongest in the Middle East," must not use that army to defeat and disarm Hamas with a ground attack. The price would be too high.
I don't disagree with that. But in this neighborhood such messages are read as cowardice. That was the signal the region got on Tuesday night when rocket fire shut down Israel's only international airport. The same message was sent a day earlier when Hamas missiles fired at Jerusalem forced the Knesset into emergency adjournment. Cameras caught frightened legislators scurrying for cover.
Netanyahu has built alliances with Arab countries partly on the premise that he could help defend them against the Iranian enemy. If he can't even protect the Israeli parliament against a mere Iranian proxy, that premise has to be reevaluated.
As Tel Aviv was being attacked, there were violent demonstrations in the streets of Israeli Arab towns from the Galilee to the Negev. Citizens of Israel raised Palestinian flags. In Lod, near the airport, bands of young Israeli Muslims torched synagogues and hurled rocks at Jewish neighbors and the police; several more were attacked in the town of Ramla, also mixed, that abuts Lod. Some are already calling it a third intifada. The first two intifadas were carried out by Palestinians in occupied territory. This time the rioters were Israeli citizens, born and bred. Recent optimism about Israeli Arabs moving toward social and political integration with the mainstream now looks dubious.
The riots and the rocket attacks now taking place have various underlying causes. But the precipitating incident was the decision to send armed cops into the Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem last week. That was, at best, an unforced error by a newly appointed chief of police. Cynics wonder if Netanyahu - who is trying to hang on to his office against a coalition of parties hoping to oust him and prevent new elections - allowed the provocation for his own political benefit.
Whatever the truth, Netanyahu, like any Israeli prime minister, is responsible for the safety and security of the "third temple" and its people. In that, he has failed. Whether or not an alternative strategy would be better, Netanyahu's approach went unchallenged and let Israelis think they were out of harm's way. Israelis will now have to come to terms with the fact that the status quo strategy he has long pursued is dangerous.
Left as things are, Hamas will become another Hezbollah and Israel will face an impossible situation that could well result in drastic measures whose impact would go beyond the Middle East. If Netanyahu can't acknowledge his errors and adapt policy to reality, Israelis will need a leader who will.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.