I’m in Tel Aviv and have only been here for about 24 hours, so my impressions are just that—impressions. But walking the streets on Monday night and Tuesday morning and afternoon, the overwhelming feeling is one of heartbreak. Not mine—no, it’s as though the emotion of heartbreak is somehow present in the air of this usually vibrant, often chaotic-seeming city. And that seems to be the case even though Israelis, as far as I can tell, are finding a measure of relief in the release of the hostages that began a few days ago, which they have not experienced since October 7.

Ask people here how things have been since that day and they say the feeling is unlike any they’ve ever known. What does that mean exactly? I think it means very different things to different people, but the common thread seems to be that everyone is experiencing what might be called a personal crisis of national confidence.

The story of Israel, despite the wars and the strife, is a story of building and creation. A hundred years ago, Tel Aviv was a town of 15,000 people. That town is now home to 435,000, and sits in the midst of a metropolitan area 4 million strong. Through decades rife with political maelstroms and economic reversals and ideological spats, Israel has simply gotten bigger and more competent and stronger and become a more desirable and prosperous place to live. My sense is Israelis, no matter how slightingly they have spoken of the economy’s inequalities and the disgracefulness of its politicians, nonetheless swell with pride at their own place as a living and breathing element inside one of the world’s most purposeful countries—a place they hold in part because so many of them serve in the military as their first acts of adulthood.

Because security is a paramount concern, and because security is so much a part of Israel’s national identity, the collapse of that sense of security on October 7—and the collapse of the security itself—has been devastating. Blame it on whomever you choose. There’s Bibi, because he’s been the person in charge since January (and was in charge from 2009 to 2021). There are the political leaders that preceded him in government in 2021 and 2022, who also failed to pick up the signals that Hamas was planning something very big and very clever. There’s the active military, which apparently thought a chain-link fence would suffice as a border. There are the officials in the chain of command who dismissed the eyewitness warnings literally sent to them from the soldiers—women, mostly—who served in the watchtowers overseeing Gaza over the course of 2023 that there was mischief afoot. There are the once-vaunted and legendary intelligence services, which almost certainly were being fed false info by fake spies that lulled the government into a false sense of complacency.

Take your pick, or pick all of them, the fact of the matter is that the failure was systemic. Israel simply was not a safe place before October 7, and its people did not know that until it was too late. It was, in fact, a sitting duck. One of the key promises made by Netanyahu during his time in office from 2009 to 2021, and then during his successful bid to return to office at the end of 2022, was that he alone among Israel’s political leaders could be relied upon to keep the Palestinians in check. Apparently Bibi came to believe in his own spin, and became totally susceptible to the idea that Hamas was keeping quiet and not looking for any trouble—perhaps because it fed into his sense of self. He liked his spin too.

Netanyahu’s career atop Israeli politics has been focused on the existential threat from Iran and the possibility of making new alliances in the Middle East to check the Persian Shiite fundamentalists in Tehran. But of course Hamas is an ally, or even more a proxy, of Iran. In focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Netanyahu and others seemed to have forgotten that Iran is an unconventional as well as a conventional power. The key element of unconventional or asymmetrical warfare (which is what terrorism is, since terrorist groups cannot hope to match the force of a sovereign military like the one Israel has, so you work asymmetrically with what you have at hand) is the sneak attack. You cannot by definition defend against one. You can only be so strong and so observant that you are not the victim of one. Your security position in a world in which sneak attacks are a method of trying to defeat you is never to look away and give the attackers a chance to sneak past.

It’s tedious and boring and unrewarding work. Israel used to be really good at it—not perfect, but really, really good at it. And at some point in the past decade, its military and intelligence establishment lost the plot. Iran isn’t just turning its possible nuclear sites towards the Jews. It’s also clearly letting the attack dogs it’s been training loose to see what spiritual damage they can do.

Thus, the heartbreak has about it the ache of a love gone wrong, the love Israelis have felt about the institution they most valued—the IDF—and in which so many had served and continued to serve. This is not to say that Israelis are not supportive of the soldiers and reservists who have been fighting since October 7. They love them. These are their children, their friends, their husbands, and they have taken to the mission with purpose and conviction. They will all be treated as heroes—even as the politicians and the military leaders will experience something very much like the opposite of the hero treatment when the war is over.

It’s as though Israelis are looking at the past 10-15 years and thinking, as heartbroken lovers do when they feel betrayed, that everything about those years was sort of a lie. And so Israel does not only need to rebuild the deterrence it lost on October 7. It will need to reestablish its story—the story of a vanguard nation that has survived and thrived against all odds—and in a way that Israelis themselves do not greet with cynicism and dismissiveness. They will need to learn to love themselves again.

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