The shocking terrorist attack by Hamas in southern Israel requires a swift response as well as some introspection from the Israeli government, which now has the opportunity to show the transparent and targeted resolve of an open society in contrast to the indiscriminate barbarism of a terrorist group. A response that methodically cripples the militants and deters future atrocities can still be proportionate and justified.
That military mission will necessarily seek justice. Over the longer term, Israel will need to rebuild its people’s trust in the nation’s intelligence community and foreign policy. Responsibility lies with Hamas and its backers such as Iran, but Israelis are entitled to ask how this atrocity could have happened to a technologically advanced country with a formidable security apparatus and vaunted intelligence agencies.
Contrary to common belief, such breakdowns are actually quite rare. Claims of intelligence failures have in the past been used to cover up policy neglect (as was the case with the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982) or a confused response (such as to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990). Warnings may go unheeded, reports may remain unread or advice may be too broad to spur action. Rarely do dots simply go unconnected.
Given this, some observers have blamed government distraction for the failure to prevent Hamas’s attack because of the current divisive state of Israeli politics and authorities’ focus on more politically pressing issues of West Bank security. There are also emerging allegations that the government ignored warnings from Egypt.
Of course, intelligence failures do happen. And an Israeli intelligence failure is not unheard of, despite the reputation of its agencies. Witness the surprise outbreak of the five-year-long second intifada at the end of September 2000.
What’s more, these shocking events, with their brazenness and costs, echo 1973’s Yom Kippur War – an example of intelligence failure mentioned in the same breath as Pearl Harbor, Operation Barbarossa and 9/11 (even if the latter three were more accurately strategic warning failures, with intelligence agencies, policymakers and politicians all at fault).
The Yom Kippur War was sparked by surprise Egyptian and Syrian offensives, intended to reverse the Arab losses and Israeli victories of 1967. Caught out during its holiest festival, Israel struggled initially to respond, before prevailing at significant human and materiel cost (and a Soviet–US near confrontation.) The day before the invasion, Israel’s director of military intelligence had assured Prime Minister Golda Meir that observed Egyptian activities were likely defensive in nature and there wouldn’t be an invasion of the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula.
There are still debates about the cause of the Israeli failure. Some point to the ‘crying wolf’ factor. Intelligence warnings earlier in 1973 that initiated Israeli military mobilisation proved unfounded—and costly. Others blame cognitive failings of individuals, bureaucratic monopolies and cultural misunderstandings.
However, one explanation that took hold was the idea of the ‘concept’.
Israeli military intelligence had become fatally wedded to the assessment that, without effective means to counter Israeli air superiority that had prevailed in 1967’s Six-Day War, Egypt would not launch an offensive. That meant the Syrians also wouldn’t attack because they would never act alone. But the assessment failed to consider that Egypt might instead adopt limited but important objectives (such as seizing the right bank of the Suez Canal and forcing a negotiated return of the broader Sinai) combined with an asymmetric advantage (including effective denial of Israeli airspace using missile forces based back inside Egypt).
These assumptions held for a time, but neglected to take account of an abrupt change in Egyptian strategy in 1972 at the command of President Anwar Sadat.
The ‘concept’ was reinforced by hubris. Israel’s highly regarded intelligence sources inside Egypt were quiet until the very eve of the invasion, when Mossad’s best-placed source in Cairo (believed to be former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law, Ashraf Marwan) reported an impending invasion. Israel had also hamstrung itself by having a ‘special collection’ signals intelligence system—speculated to be a tap on Egyptian military communications—that was exquisite but vulnerable, leaving them reluctant to actually turn it on.
So, what had started out as sound intelligence analysis and strategic rationale had calcified into a self-defeating heuristic. The result: terrified surprise when, on 6 October 1973, Israel was invaded on two fronts.
A question now lingers: before last Saturday, was Israeli intelligence in thrall to a new concept, this time about what Hamas and its jihadist allies would not, or could not, do from Gaza?
In the rush for explanations, we shouldn’t forget that intelligence is at its heart a contest in which the enemy gets a vote. Hamas has consistently adapted to changing circumstances, turning to rocket barrages when faced with Israel’s clampdown on moving its forces, then to tunnels under the border and now to hostage-raiding reminiscent of the Dark Ages and intended to prey on Israeli vulnerabilities. And it’s why they strove to deny and deceive Israeli surveillance, as was the case with Egyptian deception efforts in 1973.
In the aftermath of 1973, the Agranat Commission cut a swathe through the intelligence leadership. It would traumatize agencies for decades.
Israel’s current emergency is still in its early days, but when the apparent intelligence failure is dissected, there will likely be lessons for other national intelligence communities—even for Australia’s, which is currently undergoing an independent review.
As different as Australia’s circumstances are, we can learn from Israel’s experience, including the lesson that precedent is a guide only and not to be relied upon: strategic circumstances change and nations must be ready to adapt. It takes leadership to actively promote contestability and a willingness to constantly test existing intelligence, military and policy assumptions. It also takes investment in new tools to better understand, plan for and manage strategic risk, ideally to prevent such crises but also to respond effectively if, and when, they occur.
The good news is that Australia holds an intelligence review every five to seven years to ensure risk is assessed in times of peace, not only in war or after a crisis. Sadly, a major event is too often the ultimate test of any system, but calm and frank evaluations like the current review remain the best ways to anticipate, avert and recover from future crises.
Justin Bassi is the executive director of ASPI.
This article was first published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.