Outgoing state comptroller: PM sought to curb criticism of Gaza war
Speaking before leaving office, Yosef Shapira says there was never any personal animosity towards Netanyahu or his wife, whose prosecution for misuse of funds was triggered by one of his reports; but, he says, 'There are cases where you don't have to be the sweet and loyal puppy dog, that wags its tail happily'
Senior defense officials tried to stifle criticism of the way Israel handled 2014 Gaza war, outgoing state comptroller Yosef Shapira says, highlighting what he calls a false claim that the issue of the Hamas attack tunnels had been extensively discussed by the cabinet.
Shapira recalls that after the 50-day war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, he attended a meeting at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where those present knew he wanted to write a review of the conduct of the combat, as part of his role to review government actions.
"There were a lot of people there, all of the security top brass and advisers, and they tried to convince me not to criticize the operation," he says of the attempts to dissuade him from writing the report. In the end, his report had enormous repercussions.
"A few months before that meeting, the prime minister started a series of intensive briefings for media outlets, and he claimed that there had been 13 cabinet meetings spent on the question of tunnels," Shapira says, with reference to the tunnels that Hamas used to launch attacks from Gaza.
"Our people went and checked the cabinet protocols, and it turned out that this wasn't true. There were 18 mentions of tunnels, just short asides, as the cabinet talked about other things. As opposed to what the prime minister claimed, it turned out that there wasn't a single significant discussion in the cabinet about tunnels."
The last seven years were very tumultuous for the 74-year-old retired judge. One of his central battles was against the attempt to prevent him from releasing his findings as events unfolded.
Shapira contends that he would have quit if this limitation had been placed on him.
"If during my term the decision would have been taken to stop real-time criticisms, then I would have quit. Here we're not talking about a specific report, but the very heart of the matter."
It was Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right religious party Tkuma, who initiated the bill to curb the comptroller's authority to review the government.
Speaking about Smotrich's role in establishing an NGO that seeks to monitor allegedly unauthorized Palestinian construction, Shapira said: "(Smotrich) was one of the founders of the Regavim non-profit. We did a couple of reports that touched on him. Since then he has attacked the state comptroller's office time after time."
Among his reports, Shapira produced a review of the expenses from the prime minister's residence, and its findings eventually led to the criminal investigation and plea deal signed earlier this month by the prime minister's wife, Sara Netanyahu.
But, says Shapira, the dispute was never personal.
"There's no quarrel between two sides, where one day you are mad at each other and the next you make up," says Shapira. "I didn't get mad at the prime minister, not before and even not today."
But, it appears that the prime minister does not share this view.
"I did my job faithfully, along with my team, and the reports about his office or about him personally went through many rounds of review before they were published," Shapira says.
"I'm not mad at him or his team. On the contrary, I respect them a great deal. On the other hand, the honorable prime minister is the one who ignores me, at conferences and at meetings at the president's residence, and other such gatherings, he turns away from me."
What advice would you have for the new state comptroller, Matanyahu Engelman ?
"We've talked a great deal, and we went over the approach of comptrollers whose reports are more 'biting,' and there's some that are less so, and there's comptroller reports that are supposedly more 'balanced.'
"Everything depends on the issue at hand. I told him about myself, and that there are cases where you don't have to be the sweet and loyal puppy dog, that wags its tail happily. That's it. And that was instead of giving him a long lecture on the subject.
"If you think you are liable to be influenced by others, you shouldn't be in this role. And I gave him another piece of advice: be honest. If you aren't honest, the criticism will backfire and be levelled at you."
There was no comment in response from the prime minister's office.
Smotrich responded, "I am grateful to the state comptroller for his work over the years, and I am convinced that all his decisions were made for the right reasons and not out of personal motivations. I wish him success in his next endeavor. I hope that the comptroller that his successor will get the comptroller's office back on track in order to help the executive branch improve its services for the good of the citizens of Israel."