Meeting Israelis’ demand for change and accountability

Thousands of Israelis demonstrated with the hostages' families against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, demanding an immediate hostage deal and general elections, April 27th 2024.
Thousands of Israelis demonstrated with the hostages' families against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, demanding an immediate hostage deal and general elections, April 27th 2024. Matan Golan/Sipa USA.

So far, only one Israeli senior officer, Aharon Haliva, the chief of Israeli military intelligence, has resigned, accepting personal responsibility for what he called the “black day” of October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, brutally killing 1,200 Israelis and seizing 253 hostages. Throughout Israel’s continuing confrontation with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and, most significantly, Iran, no other Israeli officer or official with responsibility for the stunning Israeli security and intelligence failures on October 7 has resigned or been held accountable.

One might have expected if not resignations then at least explanations for the failures. But none has been forthcoming—there have been no meaningful explanations from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, while Gallant accepted responsibility for failing to stop Hamas’s attack on October 7, Netanyahu, who bears the ultimate responsibility for the shameful collapse of Israeli security, has so far hidden behind escapist rhetoric about some kind of postwar reckoning—but not now, he stresses, not during the war. A number of Netanyahu critics, including journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography of Netanyahu, have suggested that the prime minister has been more absorbed in this war with his personal and political survival than with Israel’s security.

Seven months into what seems like an endless war, Israelis have become increasingly uncertain about their future, and they have still not been provided with a satisfactory explanation of why October 7 happened and who is responsible.

Lessons from 1973

One possible path forward can be found by looking back to the events of 1973, 50 years and one day prior to October 7, 2023. Half a century ago, on October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria took advantage of the Yom Kippur holiday to launch a surprise attack on Israel, leaving it for a while in alarming disarray. There had been warnings of an imminent Arab attack, but they were foolishly ignored. Even Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, an Israeli hero, wondered if Israel would survive. But, once again, like in the present crisis, the United States came to Israel’s rescue. President Richard Nixon ordered emergency shipments of military supplies. Israel, reinvigorated, counterattacked and not only survived but prevailed.

But then, like now, Israelis were saddled with the agonizing question, who was responsible for this near disaster? Prime Minister Golda Meir, unlike the current prime minister, accepted that Israelis deserved an answer. On November 21, 1973, she established the Agranat Commission of Inquiry to investigate the glaring failures in Israeli intelligence and military preparedness for the 1973 war. The commission was limited by design: it was not to examine Israel’s political leadership, only its military leadership. Still, it functioned by reviewing strategy and interviewing key personnel. Led by Shimon Agranat, chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, it produced a final report, placing blame for Israel’s failure of military preparedness on the chief of military intelligence, Eli Zeira, and the chief of staff, David Elazar, both of whom immediately resigned. Months earlier, Meir and Dayan had also resigned, accepting responsibility for their roles in the 1973 war.

The commission served two important public services: it explored how the intelligence and military failures happened and how the risk of a repeated failure might be mitigated, and it produced a measurable degree of official accountability, which the Israeli people had demanded and deserved.

A cry for accountability

Of course, history follows no exact libretto, but Israelis are again demanding accountability and an explanation for the obvious political and intelligence failures that led to the October 7 calamity. So far, for different reasons, there has been no sign that Netanyahu will follow in Meir’s controversial footsteps. He has refused to resign. No national commission has been organized. Nor have national elections for a possible change in government been announced, even though Benny Gantz, a moderate member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, has raised the possibility of elections this fall. So too in a stronger voice has Yair Lapid, a prominent anti-Netanyahu politician.

The Israeli people have been demanding some degree of political accountability for this war without end, and, with even more force, they’ve been screaming for the release of the more than 100 family members still being held hostage by a hostile Hamas. Elections are one form of accountability; a national commission is another.

But in the immediate future, Israel’s destiny lies in the hands of a prime minister who continues to pretend that he doesn’t hear the people’s cry for accountability. His political future appears to depend on the continuing cohesiveness of his ruling coalition. Should it crack apart under increasing public pressure, a major change in the Israeli government is certain. But should it somehow hold together, the streets and squares of Israel will again be crowded with angry, disappointed, and frustrated protesters, demanding, among other things, a return of hostages, accountability for October 7, and a change in government.