The NYT is spinning 'bad Israel' stories. Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images.

December 8, 2023   3 mins

The bad-faith reporting of Israeli news in The New York Times can overcome even the simplest arithmetic. Last month, there was a day-long rally for Israel in Washington that filled its Mall, with police attendance estimates ranging between 250,000 and 300,000. In the pages of the NYT, however, this became a gathering of “tens of thousands”.

As for Hamas’s recent attack, the NYT has already reported that Netanyahu’s policies focused on the West Bank and neglected Hamas. Indeed, it seems that the NYT keeps one Ronen Bergman as its Staff Writer for in-depth “bad-Israel” stories, and he works hard to deliver the goods. Having actually served in the Military Police, the lowest-prestige Corps of the armed forces, Bergman claimed an intelligence background to write about intelligence operations. (He once wrote that my much-missed friend Meir Dagan, the later Mossad chief, would personally strangle captured terrorists in an elbow lock when serving in military intelligence — a physical impossibility for short-armed Dagan.)

The latest is a carefully contrived misrepresentation of the reason that Israel was caught by surprise on October 7. Headlined “Israel Knew Hamas’s Attack Plan More Than a Year Ago”, it was based on a fundamental misconception — that the Israeli army is an active-duty force, as most armies indeed are. But the Israel Defence Forces is radically different: it is a reserves-centered force, one of only three in the world, along with the Finnish and Swiss armies.

Instead of consisting of active-duty forces that are up and running around the clock, the IDF mostly consists of reserve units. When mobilised for refresher training or to fight a war, the reservists go to their specific depots scattered around the country to collect their uniforms, kit and weapons — everything from pistols to battle tanks — before moving out as combat units ready for action.

That is how a country of some 7 million has more than 635,000 soldiers, airmen and sailors when fully mobilised, compared with the 2 million in all US armed forces, out of a population of some 330 million: that is, a ratio that is more than tenfold. Invented in 1948, the reserve system is the key to Israel’s military strength. Aside from allowing Israelis to work and raise their families while still being ready to fight, it also allows the Israeli troops who are on duty to train properly in unit exercises and larger manoeuvres, instead of being tied down to watch frontiers and hold outposts.

But there is a major catch: advance warning is needed to mobilise the reserves in time, and even with the best possible intelligence analysts, and all the best satellites, sensors and computers, the problem is not just hard… it is impossible. Had Israeli intelligence analysis, or the arrival of a complete war plan sold by an enterprising operative revealed Hamas’s plan for an attack on October 7, the Israelis would have sent much stronger forces to guard the Gaza perimeter. Instead of the lone Merkava tank whose capture by dozens of Hamas fighters was shown again and again in news videos, there would have been a company of 10 tanks in that position, which would have massacred the attackers with their machine-gun fire. As for the single mechanised infantry company with fewer than 100 solders that guarded a critical hinge position, there would have been a battalion or even two that would have crushed the attackers.

But then, of course, Hamas spotters would have seen Israeli troops ready to defeat them — and they would have called off the attack altogether. There is worse: once an attack warning is received and reinforcements are deployed so that the enemy calls off its planned attack, the intelligence indicators that got it right will be discredited as false alarms, while the intelligence officers who failed to heed the signs will be the ones everyone listens to the next time around.

That is how, almost exactly 50 years before Hamas’s recent invasion, President Anwar Sadat’s offensive across the Suez Canal caught the Israelis with only 411 soldiers holding the frontline forts. On the first day of the Yom Kippur War, they were attacked by a first wave of 20,000 Egyptian troops, with 10 ten times as many following behind them. Why were the Israelis surprised? Because they had got it right several months earlier, and had recalled reservists from their jobs and their families to take up their weapons and go to the front, which persuaded the Egyptians to call off their initial attack.

This is why, when a complete Hamas war plan was captured more than a year ago, identifying each target that would in fact be attacked on October 7 (the “rave” was a last-minute addition), there was no alarm and no mobilisation. The plan was one of many — Hamas was always fantasising about mass attacks, but would then limit itself to the launch of its rockets that Israel could reliably intercept.

In the half century between the intelligence failures of October 1973 and October 2023, the system worked so well that Israel could win its wars while still allowing Israelis to get on with their lives and build their country. That is how Israel, which started off in 1949 with a per capita income far below the European average, is now 13th in the world. Once in 50 years, the system fails — but the alternative, of mobilising in response to every possible threat, would be far worse.

Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.