No leader at the end of the tunnel
Op-ed: The overall impression from the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge is that Netanyahu isn’t functioning as a leader: He isn’t outlining a policy because he has no policy; he isn’t imposing his opinion because he has no opinion. The amazing thing is the gap between his image as ‘Mr. Security’ and his real involvement in security management.
The most serious finding in the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge exists only between the lines: If tomorrow Israel enters a new military conflict in Gaza, it will be run the exact same way the previous operation was run.
The tunnel problem has not been solved yet, despite the huge financial investment. The operational plans have not been completed either. Rockets, mortar shells and missiles will be fired into Israel, and we cannot rule out the possibility that they will paralyze the traffic at Ben-Gurion Airport. The question of our policy towards Hamas will continue to hover over the cabinet discussions like a cloud of haze, and so will the question of whether to send in infantry forces. In the two years that have passed since then, no miracle has happened. We are facing the same dilemmas, with the same leadership, with the same conception, with the same army, with undramatic changes.
But why predict what will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, when we know what happened yesterday and the day before yesterday. Rockets were fired from Gaza. Air Force planes produced a mushroom cloud of black smoke for the cameras, and the prime minister delivered a speech. Give me a rocket and I will give you a bomb—that’s the strategy that will lead us to the next operation.
Operation Protective Edge is not the Yom Kippur War failure. The sensational headlines do the facts injustice. Whoever reads the comptroller’s report with realistic eyes, free of personal sentiments, political inclinations and mud fights between generals, will find a lot of troubling revelations in it alongside quite a few positive aspects. The comptroller did his job, within his limitations. It’s possible that he could have written a much more profound, much more significant report on the operation, but that’s what this instrument knows how to play.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the main official inspected in the report. The report focuses on violation of procedures: Netanyahu failed to report to the cabinet members, failed to make decisions, failed to deal with what he himself had defined as a strategic threat. The impression from the overall report is even more serious. Netanyahu isn’t functioning as a leader: He isn’t outlining a policy because he has no policy; he isn’t imposing his opinion because he has no opinion. The defense minister could have entered this void, but according to the report, that didn’t happen either. Moshe Ya’alon stood out mainly in the things he didn’t do. If he had any influence on the decision making, it wasn’t reflected in the cabinet.
The amazing thing is the gap between Netanyahu’s image as “Mr. Security” and his real involvement in managing security and his performance as the leader of the government, the army and the people. The man is a marketing expert, a master craftsman. His initial response to the report is a good example. A day before he is hit with a report which presents his performance during the operation in all its ugliness, he announces that he is backing the IDF against the state comptroller. He is killing two birds with one sentence—both shirking responsibility and presenting the State Comptroller’s Office as the enemy of the institution which Israelis care about the most, as a traitor. Death to the comptrollers.
Netanyahu is the only one among the inspected officials who still holds the same position he held during the operation, which is why the report is relevant first of all to him. Ya’alon, who resigned, serves as an easy target for everyone: For his former colleagues in the Likud, for Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yoav Galant, for all the right-wing ministers who are so respectful towards the prime minister but have no problem degrading his partner in the operation, the defense minister; and he also serves as an easy target for the Left, because he is deep in the Right.
Ministers Bennett and Lieberman were the troublemakers of the Protective Edge cabinet. Bennett focused on the tunnels. He presented profound questions to Ya’alon and to IDF Chief of Staff Gantz in real time. The comptroller’s report adopts these questions. But Bennett knows that he should keep the celebrations modest. The bereaved families are watching. His fellow government ministers are already accusing him of dancing on the blood.
As for Lieberman, he is no longer preaching about an occupation of Gaza—he is preaching about an arrangement with Hamas. And he has a lot of sympathy towards the people’s feelings. He is extremely national.
The criticism against the IDF commanders is partly comprehensive and reasoned, and party groundless. I’ll start with the groundless part: The report’s authors are accusing Chief of Staff Gantz and Military Intelligence Director Aviv Kochavi of failing to do more to force the prime minister and the defense minister to convene the cabinet for a real discussion on the tunnels. The subordinate is responsible for activating those who are in charge of him. When I told the report’s authors that I found that comment puzzling, one of them replied: “When the IDF wants something, the IDF gets it.” That’s a response which has no room in a report aimed at creating order in the decision-making process. It has no room in the law either.
The other claims have to do with the tunnels. Gantz is accused of removing forces from the communities on the eve of the operation instead of reinforcing them, of failing to prepare the forces for an occupation of the tunnels, for agreeing to bomb the shafts from the air although he knew that would not neutralize the danger of the tunnels and would only make it difficult for infantry forces to destroy them.
“The political echelon wanted to contain the event, to end it as soon as possible, without being drawn into a ground operation,” Gantz explained to the state comptroller. “The state is allowed to engage in strategic risk management.”
The report claims that Kochavi estimated that Hamas was not interested in a military conflict and that the information about the tunnels provided by the Military Intelligence Directorate was insufficient; on the other hand, it showers the intelligence achievements in the operation with compliments.
The report’s basic assumption is that the tunnels were a strategic threat. That’s what Netanyahu and Ya’alon said in 2013. This assumption is disputable—there were and there are greater threats. The fact is that even today, with the same offensive tunnels, only wider and improved, the State of Israel is alive and kicking, and even the Gaza vicinity area is alive and kicking and thriving.
In the meantime, Gantz has been released from the army and Kochavi moved on to a successful service as the Northern Command chief. In a few days, he will take office as the deputy chief of staff. I asked one of the authors of the report in the State Comptroller’s Office if he thought the report harmed Kochavi’s chances of being appointed chief of staff. He gave me a short answer: “No.”
The most interesting part of the report has to do with the bombings of the tunnel shafts. Netanyahu told the comptroller that he knew the bombing was problematic, but that “the defense minister and the chief of staff recommended it, and I followed their recommendation (according to the minutes, Gantz wasn’t asked about it, and Ya’alon, who was asked, didn’t reply).” Gantz knew there was a possibility that destroying the shafts from the air would prolong the takeover on the ground, but he preferred to try it anyway. Southern Command chief Sami Turgeman was against bombing the shafts. The Air Force had faith in its abilities. The state comptroller says that the ministers who approved the bombings were not informed that it might be problematic.
The damage was not just in the longer time it took to occupy the tunnels. Bennett estimates that half, or nearly half, of the soldiers who were killed in the operation died while guarding the evacuation of the ruins.
In a side note, the report questions the reliance on Air Force bombings. It states that “when the cabinet ministers decided on the objectives of the operation, and the IDF recommended that they be achieved through airstrikes only, the cabinet ministers didn’t know that the effectiveness of these strikes is limited, due to the gap in the bank of targets, among other things.”