What lessons can Israel learn from 9/11?

President Biden urges Israel not to repeat American mistakes. He's not alone in seeing the comparison.

Menorah with two candles
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In the two weeks since Hamas fighters brutally attacked and killed Israeli civilians, sparking an Israeli siege that has killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, references to America’s 9/11 experience have been everywhere. The comparisons are not just about the magnitude of both attacks — the U.S. response to the deadly destruction of the Twin Towers and at the Pentagon is also a cautionary tale for Israeli leaders; the aftermath of the 2001 attacks included disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a torture program aimed at suspected terrorists. 

President Joe Biden last week publicly urged Israel to heed that history. “After 9/11 we were enraged in the United States,” Biden said in his speech to the nation. “While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” He’s far from alone in seeing parallels. Emma Sky, who advised U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq, told NPR the U.S. squandered its moral leadership with those errors. “It did huge damage to America's reputation in the world,” she said.

Indeed, Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware at foreign-policy-focused publication War on the Rocks War on the Rocks argue that the possibility of a wider regional war means the Israel-Hamas conflict could grow to “eclipse the impact of the 9/11 attacks 22 years ago.” But some observers are irritated by the comparisons. Ari Fleischer, who served as then-President George W. Bush’s press secretary, went on Fox News to push back against Biden’s warning. No one “said to Bush the Americans shouldn’t be consumed with rage,” Fleischer said. “Instead they just came to support us.”

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What the commentators said

“Every event in history has precedents,” NYU journalism professor Susie Linfield wrote in The Boston Globe. But the 9/11 comparisons aren’t that helpful. When al-Qaida attacked the United States, most Americans didn't have "any idea as to who the group was, where it was located, and what it stood for.” The relationship between Hamas and Israel is very different. “The terror group and the state have a long and dreadful history.” And while most Americans had no direct connection to the attacks, “the opposite is true in Israel.” The Oct. 7 attack on Israel “isn’t Sept. 11, or Pearl Harbor, or any other disaster.”

Actually, the comparison to 9/11 is “increasingly instructive,” Cornelius Adebahr, a fellow at Carnegie Europe, argued at Politico. Both events included a “glaring intelligence failure” that enabled the attacks. And both raise questions about the “endgame” involved in the response. Israel is now challenged not to repeat U.S. mistakes but to “maintain a sense of proportion” as it attempts to defeat Hamas. After all, “for some of the world, 9/11 stands, above all, for American hubris and power-political overextension.”

The Hamas attack is “meaningfully comparable” to 9/11, Solon Solomon added at Lawfare. But the differences are also important. For one, the U.S. had widespread support after the attacks, including a U.N. Security Council resolution asserting America’s right to self-defense. Now? The council has "failed to even issue a statement.” Israel should also do a better job of planning for the aftermath of its retaliation. If it knocks out Hamas without a plan to govern Gaza, "Gaza risks becoming Libya after the toppling of Gaddafi.”

What next?

Will Israel heed the lessons of 9/11? That remains to be seen. But it seems clear that American leaders have taken those lessons to heart, at least to some extent. In addition to President Biden’s public warning, NBC News reported that U.S. officials have been privately warning Israeli officials to show some restraint. “The U.S. should have learned from 9/11 the profound cost of being guided by anger and fear,” said one former national security official.

“The 9/11 attacks were designed to provoke the United States into overreaction,” Zack Beauchamp pointed out at Vox. Some suspect Hamas has a similar strategy. But Israelis have “shown themselves remarkably willing to criticize their own government’s approach.” If they follow that instinct, “it might actually lead to a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

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