We should learn from Israel that strategic shocks can happen here too
Hamas terrorists

The CT era isn't over - and Australia needs to juggle multiple security priorities

Written by

Peter Jennings

Israel’s intelligence services and military were clearly surprised by the Hamas attack but an equal mystery understanding what strategic goal Hamas was trying to achieve.

Achieving surprise delivered Hamas a brief tactical advantage and a propaganda coup but the organisation will now be handed a terrible beating by the Israeli Defence Forces.

That includes a large number of Hamas military and intelligence leaders being directly targeted and killed. One thing we know Israel does with fearsome precision is targeting. Tunnels notwithstanding, there are few places to hide for long in Gaza.

Whatever the Hamas leadership thought it was trying to achieve, they would have known that retribution would swiftly follow.

Perhaps part of the Israeli surprise was overconfidence in the deterrent value of its military. We know that Hamas fighters spent weeks prior to the attack exercising precisely the manoeuvres it put into deadly effect.

Intelligence failures happen not because of an absence of information but from deeply ingrained views colouring judgements about how an opponent will behave. Recall that there was a widely held view in NATO circles that Putin would not launch a second invasion of Ukraine.

This was a military as well as an intelligence failure. In terms of weaponry and training the Israeli military is vastly superior to Hamas, but several weeks ago a former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, Dan Harel, said “I have never seen our national security in a worse state.” He claimed that “the unravelling of the IDF … poses a genuine existential threat” and that the force was suffering “reduced readiness and operational capability.”

At a political level the Netanyahu government has been mired defending deeply unpopular changes to Israel’s judicial system. The focus of attention was on that rather than the risk of an imminent threat from Gaza.

An over confident intelligence and national security apparatus failing to think their way into the enemy’s mind; a Defence establishment losing readiness and combat sharpness and a government distracted by advocating deeply unpopular change to the political system.

Hamas, and more importantly its Iranian masters, would have been reading those signs and sensing a political and strategic opportunity.

Several reasons have been put to explain the attack. One is that Iran, Hamas’s number-one backer, wanted to derail imminent talks involving the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel designed to broker an accord between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

A large scale IDF operation in Gaza would indeed make it harder for the Saudis to sign a deal with Israel in the short term. But the reality is that the Saudi’s fear more from a resurgent Iran than Israel.

While Riyadh might not want to look unsympathetic to the Palestinians, they are not going to back Iran’s proxies, Hamas. The challenge for Israel and the United States is keep talking with the Saudis. More Iranian interference in Gaza may well advance these talks not retard them.

Secondly, Hamas might have been hoping to ignite the Arab street in the West Bank and more widely in the Middle East against Israel. This has not yet significantly happened.

A wider conflict may yet develop but I’m doubtful. Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, will calculate their own interests. What’s in it for them to back a Hamas which today looks more like the Islamic State?

Egypt, Jordan, key Gulf States and others in the wider Middle East have no trust in Iran and no interest, even by proxy, in backing Hamas. Iran’s involvement just reminds most Arab states that Israel is not a threat if its not provoked. Tehran is the real concern.

For once in the Middle East American policy has been quick and sensible. Two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Eastern Mediterranean will temper Iranian adventurism. But Washington is paying a price for the stupidity of the Obama and Biden administrations for thinking it could moderate Tehran’s behaviour through nuclear negotiations.

When diplomacy fails the reality of military power reminds us that strength is the decisive factor in the Middle East. No country knows that better than Israel and the terrible costs that military action bring.

Israel military campaign to destroy Hamas’s so-called military arm and political leadership will be in a way to minimise civilian casualties. At base Hamas is a terrorist organisation, not a government. Its business model is inflicting terror and, like the Islamic State, it will not survive in its current form much longer.

In Australia the Albanese government needs to fight its instincts to be a small target on difficult international issues and back Israel strongly. We should support threatened fellow democracies not pander to authoritarian systems.

The federal government has made a serious error in failing to offer early genuine engagement and support to Australian Jews. Albanese should also have advised Australian Muslem leaders to get their hot-heads under control. Unforgivably, this still hasn’t happened.

A pattern of poor quality strategic and political judgement is emerging in the government’s management style. We know from past governments that this is about the time in the electoral cycle that leaders announce they are changing their spots. It never works.

It would be a good moment for government to think about our own intelligence and analytical blind spots, the most obvious being that our supposedly “stabilised” relationship with China means we don’t have to worry about or seriously prepare for conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

For those diplomats and Treasury officials who think that Beijing would never go to war over Taiwan because it’s bad for business, Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’ attack show how dictatorial systems can make thoroughly bad strategic judgements.

Australia is blessed not to have a Hamas enclave on our doorstep, but we do have China working hard to build ties with near-by countries vitally important to our security.

Not to stretch the analogy with Israel, but we also have a Defence Force less prepared for military conflict than at any time in decades, and a government which has frittered away half of its term in office over a deeply unpopular change to the political system.

We are witnessing massive strategic shocks underway in Europe and the Middle East. They pale in comparison to the worst-case scenarios building momentum in the Asia-Pacific. Is Australia ready? The answer is obvious: no.