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‘The Konceptsia’

Intelligence failures are never about the details. In Israel’s case, the operational and conceptual failures that led to Saturday’s massacre are even more disturbing.

Norman Samuels
October 13, 2023
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at right, and outgoing head of Mossad Yossi Cohen, left, attend the oath-taking ceremony of David Barnea, at center, as the new head of Israeli national intelligence, June 1, 2021

GPO/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at right, and outgoing head of Mossad Yossi Cohen, left, attend the oath-taking ceremony of David Barnea, at center, as the new head of Israeli national intelligence, June 1, 2021

GPO/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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A central purpose of intelligence is the avoidance of surprise. Label an event like Saturday’s massacre a “surprise attack,” and the next step will naturally be the search for the source of the “intelligence failure.” Israeli government spokesmen will reply that it is too early and too distracting to focus on that question while we are at war. From the standpoint of intelligence analysis, the answer is, yes and no.

A full accounting of how Hamas crossed the Gaza border and massacred over 1,200 men, women, and children with very little apparent opposition will certainly require data and answers that may not be available to analysts for years. But another “surprise attack” may well be in the making right now, and bureaucrats may already be busy covering their tracks. Inconvenient and limited as the answers will be, therefore, we should not hesitate to ask tough questions now about the failure of the intelligence and military organizations to perform the functions for which they exist: to anticipate grave threats and protect the people.

One way to begin answering those questions is to look at a number of other major “surprise attacks” in modern history which have also been blamed in good measure on “intelligence failures”: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 9/11 in America, and the Egyptian-Syrian attack in the Yom Kippur War—which is the most relevant case study for us.

Perhaps the most obvious and important point to be made about all three events is that there was already a tense, hostile background in place; the “surprise” lay in the specific timing, location, and strategy of the attacks. Both the U.S. and Israeli political and military leadership certainly knew the broad dangers they faced; the job of intelligence in all three cases was to identify the when, where, who, and how. While the failure of the intelligence leadership was calamitous, it was hardly exclusive to them.

In the current situation, Israel’s military operational failures were every bit as shocking, and perhaps even more consequential than its “intelligence failure.” Israeli fighter jets based two minutes flying time from the ruptured Gaza fence took six hours to appear overhead. Israeli soldiers were shot and abducted in their beds on army bases. A large, well-advertised public gathering of thousands of young Israelis, held right on the Gaza border—an event which may have in fact been the trigger for the attack—had no apparent security.

Intelligence and military organizations function within the overall perspectives of the larger society to which their members belong; they help shape those perspectives, but they are also its captives.

Which brings us to our first point: Intelligence and military organizations function within the overall perspectives of the larger society to which their members belong; they help shape those perspectives, but they are also its captives. They look at the world through the same glasses—rose-tinted or otherwise—that the rest of us do. The view through those glasses is also inevitably expressed in strategic concepts—what Israelis in 1973 referred to as the “Konceptsia.”

In 1973, the “Konceptsia” included a general agreement among Israel’s intelligence, military, and political leaders on at least the following ”facts”:

No. 1: Israel was surrounded by enemies, but was strong enough to survive with adequate warning.

No. 2: Egypt was the prime enemy, but still smarted from its 1967 defeat and would not attack unless it had the means to neutralize the Israeli air force.

No. 3: Syria was too weak to attack alone and would therefore only attack together with Egypt; a spectacular dogfight over Syria in September between the Syrian and Israeli air forces resulted in the downing of 13 Syrian fighter planes and no Israeli losses, suggesting the futility of such an attack.

No. 4: In 1967, Israel had—almost miraculously—fought off the combined armies of the Arab world; the Egyptian soldier was found to be technologically ill-equipped. In battle, the Egyptian units turned and ran.

No. 5: Israel maintained constant physical surveillance on all fronts and, it was believed, had high-level spies and other intelligence sources at top levels in the Arab countries, whose information, however selectively received and prioritized, seemed to reinforce the Konceptsia. Secret intelligence and espionage by their nature involve lies and deception. Can you trust your sources, especially foreign ones—whether they are spies within enemy organizations, or representatives of ostensibly friendly nations or allies?

Taken together, these different “facts” generated a sense of confidence, perhaps a sense of superiority (ethnic? cultural? chutzpah? gross underestimation of the enemy?), which formed the Konceptsia—the outlook and the operating assumptions which were widely accepted by Israel’s intelligence and military leadership, and formed the background to the intelligence failure which came very close to destroying the Jewish state.

The rest of the autopsy of Israel’s “intelligence failure” in 1973 is detail, even pilpul. The mistakes in evaluating information from spies, in correctly evaluating information from the United States, the military readiness in the north, the role of Russian geopolitical strategy and Russian advisers in Egypt and Syria, while all real enough, are understandable only within the ideological womb of the Konceptsia.

It is more concrete to examine technical failures, both then and now, and these failures are certainly very real and serious. There is satisfaction in pointing to specific mistakes, and in holding individuals responsible for errors that cost lives. But the background assumptions and outlook of a country’s military and political leaders are the keys to understanding its “intelligence failures.”

So what was the Konceptsia in Israel on Shemini Atzeret, 5784? The following suggestions, hasty and subjective, should ring a bell:

No. 1: We have the most powerful military and the most capable intelligence in the Middle East; we have the most advanced technology; we are a financial and corporate powerhouse; we are rich and we live well.

No. 2: No Arab nation can pose a military threat to Israel; Iran is a grave indirect threat through Hezbollah, but we can deal with them diplomatically and militarily. Nuclear threat? Not yet.

No. 3: We can control the West Bank through police surveillance and nightly raids; we can pacify and bribe West Bankers and Gazans by work permits and limited economic benefits.

No. 4: Oh yes, Hamas: They are in the category of classic terrorist groups, capable of terrible but limited attacks, and we have repeatedly beaten them to a pulp in the past.

No. 5: Rockets, hmmm, yes, huge numbers in Lebanon, lots in the south, but we have the Iron Dome and, if need be, the air force, equipped with the latest F-35 fighter planes from the U.S.

No. 6: America has our back, and is not just concerned with its own interests.

No. 7: The internal political situation, mass demonstrations in the streets, ostensibly about the role of the courts: The country split into ethnic, religious, and economic factions with deep roots in Israel’s history.

When these variables overlap, as they did in 1973, and as they do today, attempts at clear analyses can quickly degenerate into bureaucratic battles and conspiracy theories.

Just a few examples: When Egypt engaged in major military maneuvers in September 1973 near the Suez Canal, which looked a lot like practice for crossing and invading, America reassured Israel that these were innocent training exercises. The U.S. then built credibility with Israel by providing the date by which the exercises would end. However, the goal of American policy at the time was to shift Egypt from the Russian camp to the American one—a very complex game. America’s goals were therefore to supply both sides with information, keep a grip on Israel, which was a vulnerable dependent, yet help the Israelis enough so that the Russians would not come out winners. The U.S. also regularly warned Israel not to strike first, and thereby alienate “world public opinion” and interfere with America’s other regional plans and agendas.

Another example: If Egypt would not attack without the means to control Israel’s air force, as the Konceptsia insisted, then special attention had to be given to shipments at Russian and Egyptian ports which looked like airplane fuselages; reassuringly, few were found. In this case, Israel’s intelligence was entirely correct. But that was because the Egyptians had switched their planning to building up anti-aircraft missile and rocket forces instead of aircraft, and the much smaller shipping packages flowed to Egypt unnoticed.

‘Surprise attacks’ are therefore more than simply the products of ‘intelligence failures.’ They signal confusion at the level of societal leadership.

Still another example: Israeli military intelligence and the Mossad ran their own agents and programs inside Arab countries like Egypt and Syria, and, like security agencies everywhere, they were reluctant to share information—using the desire to maintain secrecy to maintain their monopoly on the information they obtained from their agents. So, military watchers provided increasingly alarming field reports of Egyptian and Syrian movements, while others relied on American assurances, and a “highly reliable” spy embedded in Egypt’s leadership who had provided excellent and confidence-building information over a period of years—until, at the key moment, he didn’t.

The larger point of these examples is that intelligence hardly exists in a vacuum. It must be interpreted and verified before it can be used. When the dominant Konceptsia is set in stone, or becomes a self-reinforcing loop, even “obvious facts” will not make it to the operational level. While the details of who noticed or failed to notice what in any particular instance may seem scandalous or unforgivably stupid in retrospect, their role in the disasters that ultimately happened is likely to have been small.

“Surprise attacks” are therefore more than simply the products of “intelligence failures.” They signal confusion at the level of societal leadership. Are we once again underestimating the technical capability and bravery of the enemy? What are America’s real interests in the region, and how are they being expressed? Is repeated war going to provide lasting security? How fragile is Israeli society, and how reliable is our support from American Jews?

As an old man, steeped in Jewish history, skeptical of technologic and diplomatic magic, and noting that God seems to get distracted now and then from the welfare of his people, I worry that these questions weren’t asked often or directly enough by Israel’s social and political leadership—and I fear that the answers may continue to be painful.

Dr. Norman Samuels is a political scientist who specializes in the fields of terrorism and counterterrorism, security and intelligence studies, and the intersection of international terrorism and crime. He is the former President of Rutgers University, where he is currently a University Professor.