The Islamic Republic of Iran, at minimum, green-lit Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel. In Hamas and Iran’s calculus, it was both the perfect and the necessary time to launch such an attack.
Israel’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia threatened to create an Arab-Israeli bloc united against Iranian aggression across the Middle East. And since January, hundreds of thousands of Israelis had taken to the streets every week to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms.
Israeli society thus appeared vulnerable and fractured at a time when its government’s diplomacy threatened to upend Iran’s regional goals.
What Iranian and Hamas leadership failed to understand is that, as a democratic society, Israel has political disagreements that make it stronger, not weaker.
The same Israeli citizens who peacefully protested Netanyahu’s judicial reform package had a 110 percent rate of reporting for duty when the Israeli government called up more than 300,000 reservists to respond to Hamas’s attacks. Even Israel’s protest movement has temporarily “shifted from protest mode to help mode,” as protest leader Ami Dror told the AFP.
Members of Israeli society who were protesting their government were not dysfunctional. They were participating in legitimate democratic civil discourse — a concept that the terrorist Hamas organization and the autocratic Iranian regime cannot comprehend.
The Iranian regime is no stranger to widespread dissatisfaction and protests. Following the death of Mahsa Amini in regime custody, an untold number of Iranians began protesting the government’s oppressive policies, generating the strongest threat to the ayatollah’s rule since the 2009 Green Movement. In response, regime security forces killed more than 500 protesters and detained roughly 20,000 more.
Unwilling to allow for true representative government, the Iranian regime maintains order in an environment of fear. Protests against Iranian government institutions and leaders threaten the fabric of regime rule precisely because there is no way to oust leaders through a peaceful democratic process.
Hamas similarly governs out of fear. Before this war, the Gaza Strip had a Freedom House score of 11 out of 100 (the same as Iran) due to its lack of any form of representative government. Polling by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 70 percent of Gazans wanted the Palestinian Authority to take over administration of the Gaza Strip and for Hamas to “give up its separate armed units.”
And in July, thousands in Gaza City protested the quality of life under Hamas rule, chanting “what a shame” while burning Hamas flags. The protests quickly turned violent, with Hamas operatives smashing the cellphones of anyone recording and protesters and counter protesters throwing stones at one another.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Hal Brands notes that Israel suffered from “mirror-imaging” — the “conviction that our enemy thinks like we do” — when it thought that Hamas was more interested in economic prosperity than in killing Israelis. Likewise, Iran and Hamas saw Israeli protests over judicial reform as the same disorder and unrest that face their own societies and threaten their power.
Iran and Hamas had good reason to believe that Israeli society was on the verge of collapse. In February, Thomas Friedman argued in the New York Times that “Netanyahu is shattering Israeli society” with his judicial reform package. That same month, Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned that Israel was close to “societal and constitutional collapse.” Elite reservists in the Israeli military penned a letter to Netanyahu’s government stating that they would stop showing up for duty if the judicial reform wasn’t paused.
Iran and its proxies were attuned to such talk. In response to Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reform and the subsequent protests, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated, “The Zionist regime had never faced such a terrible crisis like the current one during its 75 years.” The leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, an organization that works in close tandem with Hamas and Iranian leadership, stated that Israel is “on the path of collapse, fragmentation, and disappearance, God willing.”
In addition, former NATO commander James Stavridis, told NBC News that because of the judicial reform protests, Hamas thought now was a good time to strike because Israel “has never been more divided, [and] never been weaker.”
Israel’s lack of preparedness for Hamas’s attacks allowed a successful initial onslaught. However, Hamas’s success was possible because of a failure of Israeli military strategy, not widespread societal dysfunction. Only a post-war commission of inquiry will show why warnings by Israeli surveillance on the Israel-Gaza border went unanswered. Many have already been rightly critical of Israel’s overreliance on technology to secure the Israel-Gaza border and the military’s excessive focus on the West Bank and Golan Heights. Yet as the Middle East Institute’s Vincent Carchidi aptly notes, “failure to prevent and mitigate Hamas’ attack reflects human strategic error.”
A blame game between Netanyahu and his military is now playing out and, despite public pressure and dwindling popular support, Netanyahu has refused to resign or accept any responsibility for his government’s failure during Hamas’s attack. There are also disagreements in Israel as to how to conduct the war against Hamas. Polling before Israel’s recent ground offensive found that 65 percent of Israelis supported a military invasion of Gaza, but only 29 percent wanted it to start “immediately.”
However, the sheer scale of Israeli civil cohesion during this time of crisis shows that Israelis never lost faith in their institutions. The Israeli people were not protesting the government itself, but rather those who led it. When called upon to defend their nation, Israelis throughout the political spectrum showed up en masse.
There will continue to be disagreements about how to conduct the war against Hamas, even in the top ranks of the military establishment. And when Israel ultimately emerges victorious against Hamas, there will continue to be challenges aplenty, from the lingering judicial reform questions to the pressing governance issues of Gaza.
In a democratic society, civil unity does not equate to political agreement. But those disagreements will again be a testament to the enduring strength of Israel and its democracy. It is a mistake to confuse them for anything else.
Ben Lefkowitz is a member of the Foreign and Defense Policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.
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Author: Ben Lefkowitz, Opinion Contributor