Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023.(Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

As John McCain liked to say, “It’s always darkest—just before it’s pitch black.” Hamas has already killed six times as many people as were murdered on 9/11 (as a proportion of the Israeli population), and the war is worsening by the hour. Hezbollah is making trouble on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, the West Bank is rising in sympathy with Hamas, and the Israeli Defense Force is laying siege to Gaza, likely in advance of its first occupation there in 18 years. 

Amid the darkness come questions: How can so many pro-Palestinians worldwide argue—in the despicable words of Muslim student groups at Harvard—that Israel is “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”? How complicit is Iran? How could Israel’s crack intelligence service have missed this? Are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s days numbered? What are the implications for U.S. aid to Ukraine? 

It’s important to understand that this war is different than the others in Israel’s 75-year history. The wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973—not to mention the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon—were military conflicts between armies. This was more like the killing of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics—times 100. 

“Imagine armed terrorists parachuting and motorbiking into Coachella and indiscriminately kidnapping and killing everyone there,” said Representative Daniel Goldman, the New York Democrat, said Sunday night. “That’s the equivalent of what this massacre was. Simply unconscionable.” 

Even as Israelis and American Jews remain sharply divided over Netanyahu’s shameless assault on Israel’s democracy, the Hamas atrocities are a reminder of what the State of Israel is for—to protect Jews when no one else can be counted on to do so. That was the point of establishing Israel after the Holocaust. The failure of the Netanyahu government to fulfill that foundational mission last week will reverberate for years. 

Israel has much to be ashamed of, starting with its illegal settlements on the West Bank and harsh occupation there. But the Harvard student groups and plenty of others seem ignorant of the differences between the West Bank, which is run by the moderate Palestinian Authority (PA), and Gaza, which for nearly two decades has been run by a bunch of thugs and murderers known as Hamas. 

I remember traveling to Gaza in 1998 with President Bill Clinton, who was saluting the decision of the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel. He and I separately noticed the same thing: The Mediterranean beaches there are beautiful and could bring tourism and other good things if the Hamas just gave up its twisted hatred of Jews. But they couldn’t. This was when their relations with Israel and the United States were at an all-time high, and yet every checkpoint in Gaza put a pit in my stomach. Climbing the six flights of stairs of a decrepit apartment building to the roof for an MSNBC live shot with Chris Jansing (which the network had paid the building for), I saw families staring angrily at me. If looks could kill, I would have been dead on every floor. 

After Israel withdrew its troops in 2005 and aid flowed in from Qatar and other countries, Gaza actually had a chance to become a thriving seaport. Instead, Hamas spent on building tunnels and buying weapons to attack Israel, leaving ordinary people destitute. Once again, its MO is on display: Kill innocent Israeli civilians of all ages, seize hostages, then use Palestinians as human shields around military targets (often stockpiling weapons in mosques and schools) to generate sympathy when Israel invariably retaliates. 

The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard helped plot the Hamas attacks, which comes as a surprise to exactly no one. Iran is deeply worried that its biggest regional enemy, Saudi Arabia, will make peace with Israel. But don’t assume that deal is permanently derailed. Sure, we’re in for a predictable period where the Arab street and PA leaders celebrate Hamas’ daring strike. But before long, the Saudis, Egyptians, and Gulf states will likely return to pursuing their regional interests, which are now roughly aligned with those of Israel and the U.S. 

It’s too soon to know, but that may lead to a marked improvement over the status quo. After the IDF crushes Hamas for good, an Arab peacekeeping force could begin rebuilding Gaza under the leadership of the PA. Just as the 1973 Yom Kippur War quickened the pace of diplomacy, peace may get another chance. With the end of the destructive 25-year schism between the PA and Hamas that made a two-state solution impossible to negotiate, the PA—which lost an important election in Gaza in 2006 because of its corruption—would be in a position to get it right with the backing of the Saudis and the Americans. 

This will be easier with a change of government in Jerusalem, which seems inevitable. It’s strangely fitting that Bibi was first elected prime minister in 1996 on a “Real Peace with Security” plank after a Hamas suicide bomber blew up an Israeli bus. Now, with neither peace nor security, he had little choice but to form a temporary coalition government with his adversaries. 

But if he thinks this will protect him from accountability, he’s kidding himself. When the war ends and the reckoning begins, Bibi will have one of the blackest eyes in the nation’s history. Determined to cling to threatening Israeli democracy, he apparently didn’t notice that his government’s security apparatus had become dysfunctional. After a period of rally-round-the-flag popularity, the 73-year-old may have trouble spinning his government’s colossal intelligence failure. 

Of course, it took Republicans only a few hours to try to do so. Imagine if Democrats had begun savaging President George W. Bush while the 9/11 attacks were underway. That’s what the GOP, led by Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, did. They claimed that the $6 billion in Iranian oil assets recently unfrozen by the Biden administration as part of a prisoner swap had been used to pay for the Hamas attacks. This was a lie—the money hasn’t even been released yet from a South Korean bank—but it was a good example of the ruthlessness of the Republicans, which will only get worse as the 2024 campaign heats up.  

Buried in the scary news is an opportunity for Biden. The war gives him a chance to address the nation about the need to protect both Ukraine and Israel from aggression—to lump Vladimir Putin in with Hamas by explaining that both of them hate freedom and kill children. When he asks for money to combat these twin threats, he’ll likely get it. And when House Republicans select a new speaker, it is now more—not less—likely that he will support increased military aid to both of our beleaguered allies. 

Every time McCain used his “pitch black” line, it got laughs. Then he would quickly segue into a hopeful, idealistic riff. As horrible as this moment is—as full of justifiable dread—we may yet see dawn after the darkness. 

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.