Rationally, the idea of a theme to a calendar year is ridiculous. 2023 marks nothing other than the 365 days it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun. Even more so for Jews, since the period between 1 January and 31 December is of no more to us than the gap between any two other random days.
But when have we humans been governed solely by rationality? 1789, 1848, 1914 and 1945, for example, are all shorthand for something significant which we understand by reference to the year. And we Jews all know what 1948 represents.
There have been other deeply significant years for our people since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. But, to adapt Roosevelt’s words about Pearl Harbour, if October 7 is a date which will live in infamy, so too for 2023 itself. Israel has fought battles for its survival before. But we sense — we know — that everything changed this year.
Did anything of significance happen outside Israel? Of course. We could look back at 2023 and consider, for instance, the review of the anti-extremist Prevent strategy by Sir William Shawcross.
We could reflect on the confirmation by Security Minister Tom Tugendhat that the Iranians have been tracking British Jews and plotting assassinations. We could evaluate the impact of the JC’s own revelations of how British scientists and universities have been contributing to Iranian weapon and drone technology.
We could take comfort in the introduction of the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill better known as the BDS Bill – which bars councils and other public bodies from targeting Israel for boycott. We could even acknowledge that Diane Abbott was stripped of the Labour whip after comparing antisemitism with prejudice against redheads.
But after ten months of the year, we found out that none of that is what 2023 turned out to have been about.
Had the year ended on 6 October, any assessment would have focussed on the protests which had dominated Israeli politics and society. We need to cheat a bit here, and start 2023 on 29 December 2022, when Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power as prime minister for his sixth term.
It was obvious from the start that this would be a different government, even for Netanyahu, with the inclusion of extremists such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Netanyahu tried to push the idea that they needed him more than he needed them, but the cold reality is that their inclusion in a coalition was the only way he could cobble together enough MKs to form a government. The following few months’ near-total focus on highly controversial legal reforms in which Netanyahu had never before shown any interest revealed where the power balance lay.
The first protest in January drew 20,000 people, but the movement grew quickly and mass demonstrations became customary, with over 100,000 regularly taking to the streets, rising to nearly 250,000 by March. These were not just the usual suspects. Israelis of all stripes united to show their opposition, and in June — unprecedentedly — over 300 IDF reservists protested against the reforms.
In July the Knesset approved the first stage of the changes, abolishing the “reasonableness” test, under which the Supreme Court had been able to strike down legislation which fell foul. There was talk at the time — and it was not wild talk — of a form of civil war, so deep was the schism which divided Israel. A repeated theme amongst political commentators was whether the country could ever be reunited.
But tragically, appallingly and grotesquely, Israel is now more united than it has been for many years. The invasion by thousands of Hamas terrorists on October 7, alongside members of the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Omar Al-Qasim Forces, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Mujahideen Brigades, did not just shock Israelis. Within hours they were reminded of what they had in common: their humanity and their spirit as citizens of the Jewish state.
This showed itself intellectually, emotionally and practically. One leading political writer turned to making sandwiches for the IDF soldiers preparing to go into Gaza, forming a production line alongside her neighbours. Most tellingly, the anguish over the hostages seized by Hamas brought the country together in horror.
But there were also political and military impacts. In the immediate aftermath, the government was opened up to include Netanyahu’s would-be nemesis, Benny Gantz. But the continued presence of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir was too much for Yair Lipid to accept, and he remained outside.
Militarily, the short term need to prioritise the return of the hostages had a clear impact on the IDF’s strategy. Israel was surely right to argue that it was only because Hamas was in retreat and desperate for a respite from the IDF that the space had been created in which there could be a deal for the return of some hostages. But politically, Netanyahu bore the brunt not just of the anguish but also of anger.
For years, Netanyahu’s sell has been that he, and only he, would keep Israelis safe. We will have to wait for the inevitable inquiry when the military operations are over for the full details of how October 7 was allowed to happen. But the fact is that it happened on his watch.
It is no surprise that polls show a collapse in support for him and Likud. One showed 56 per cent of Israelis demanding Netanyahu resign once the Gaza operation was over, with 86 per cent holding him responsible for the security failings that led to the surprise attack. As he has demonstrated throughout his career, however, Netanyahu is a master of political survival — and in a social media post on 29 October he sought to shift blame onto the security establishment. That this may all be too much even for Netanyahu to survive was shown by the uproar which followed his post, which he promptly deleted.
Within days of the massacre, visitors from abroad, including President Biden, queued up to show their support. Rishi Sunak and President Macron were quick to join the parade. They were all resolute in their expressed support of Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas. Biden seemed genuinely angry, and gave an emotional press conference at the White House.
But as civilian casualties mounted in Gaza — an inevitable consequence of Hamas’ policy of using human shields — so followed the usual words whenever Israel takes military action against terror. Within days, Biden was urging Israel to minimise civilian casualties, David Cameron was telling anyone who would listen that on his visit to Israel he had “stressed over and over again that they must abide by international humanitarian law, that the number of casualties are too high and that they have to have that top of their mind” and Macron was saying to the BBC that, “These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop”.
So far, however, this all seems to be directed more towards domestic political consumption than the Israeli government, and Israel has been able to carry on its operation with the continued backing of its allies.
Most observers expect the IDF to move to smaller, more direct tactics in the next few weeks. As the next stage of this crisis begins, the known unknowns (as Donald Rumsfeld would have have put it) are what state Hamas will be left in, what will happen in Gaza, and who will be the Israeli prime minister. But it may be that it is the unknown unknowns that will have the most impact.