The decision-making process was flawed, the discussions were hurried and superficial, the National Security Council was kept in the dark, and scenarios of extreme violence were ignored – these are only some of the harsh criticisms found in the State Comptroller's report on the government's handling of the Turkish aid flotilla to Gaza, which took place on May 2010.
Micha Lindenstrauss highly critical report, released on Wednesday, stretches over 153 pages and deals with both the government's performance in the Turkish flotilla incident and with the application of the National Security Council Law, as well as Israel's national propaganda apparatus.
In his report, Lindenstrauss named Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the party responsible for the incident: "The decision making process regarding the dealings with the Turkish flotilla led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and under his responsibility was found to include essential and significant flaws."
"The prime minister's decision-making was made without proper coordination, documentation, or preparation, despite the fact that the government, the IDF's top officers, and senior intelligence officials were all aware that the Turkish flotilla wasn't like the flotillas that preceded it," the report added.
The comptroller indicated that despite the fact that Netanyahu was well aware that the incident was highly irregular in its scope and was personally involved in the preparation for it, he hadn't internalized the fact that intercepting the flotilla with force could lead to a violent confrontation onboard the Mavi Marmara, leading to a large number of casualties.
The report lists multiple cases in which officials, including then Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, warned of a violent response by the boat's passengers.
A few weeks before the flotilla set sail, Ashkenazi sent a letter to Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, in which he suggested the flotilla be thwarted by diplomatic means before resorting to use of force.
According to the report, after the letter was sent, Netanyahu held four work meetings with Ashkenazi, in which the matter was discussed.
IDF official: Israel government should prepare for casualties
On May 6, 2010, three and a half weeks before the flotilla, Barak convened a meeting to discuss the preparation for the flotilla, in which Ashkenazi warned of the possibility that Palestinian activists from the Gaza Strip will try to attack IDF navy vessels.
"It is important that the government realize what we're expected to face," Ashkenazi said at the meeting.
In the same meeting, Barak instructed the IDF to prepare for the possibility that live rounds may be fired at the commandos by the flotilla passengers and to make sure that uninvolved persons are kept from harm. The defense minister also instructed the army to present these contingencies to Netanyahu. "He needs to know," Barak said.
A week later, at another meeting convened by the defense minister, Barak reiterated his fear that the passengers would fire at IDF soldiers. "I hope this doesn’t happen, it didn't in previous like incidents," answered then Israel Navy chief Eliezer Marom, adding that it wasn't likely that the passengers would shoot at IDF forces.
The comptroller’s report also mentions a meeting of the IDF's general staff ten days before the flotilla, at which a high ranking officer warned of violence. Two days later the chief of staff spoke in the same vein in his office.
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"Completing the IDF's stated mission as it has been defined for it will lead to confrontation with foreign nationals onboard and will create a provocation which will serve to further fan the flames of criticism already targeting Israel," stressed Ashkenazi.
Five days before the flotilla’s arrival, in the only meeting on the subject the seven-member forum of senior ministers held, Ashkenazi warned the ministers that a military takeover of the Mavi Marmara would lead to a violent confrontation. "I want to clarify that it isn't easy but we will do it. It is no-two minute operation," he said.
"If anyone wants to make a drama out of it – there's enough fuel for two or three days – not an hour…. I have no doubt that there will be violence there. Let it be made clear. The people will confront us. I think it's an illusion to think that if 20 people descend onto a ship with 400 people aboard they will be met with applause. They will fight them," he added.
Netanyahu: I didn't receive information on the danger posed by the flotilla
The long list of examples included in the comptroller’s report contrast with the answers Netanyahu gave to whether or not he knew and understand that a takeover of the flotilla could escalate into a violent confrontation.
Netanyahu and his office members admitted that all the relevant discussion summaries were made known to the prime minister. But Netanyahu claimed that in none of these said discussions mentioned the possibility of violent confrontation.
"The chief of staff didn't raise the issue of the threat that flotilla members posed nor did he voice any concern that violence would erupt," the Prime Minister's Office told the comptroller and his staff, adding: "In the meeting at the Defense Minister's office the possibility that the flotilla was dangerous because of its size or the probability that shots would be fired was assessed as negligible."
Netanyahu and his staff presented the comptroller with responses to each one of the report drafts, in which in each case they reiterated the claim that "the whole time the possibility that the army wasn't prepared to deal with the flotilla wasn't raised."
According to the report, Netanyahu himself said during a meeting with the comptroller that "in no place, in no discussion, not with anyone, not with the defense minister, not with the chief of staff, not with the commander of the navy…nowhere was a problem with the operation raised."
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These statements made by Netanyahu are strange in light of the quotes presented in the report from the senior minister meeting in which at least three ministers raised concerns over the IDF's plans, inquired about the details and were silenced, only to be silenced.
For example, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor asked Ashkenazi "Do you have enough men?" Ashkenazi's response shows that possible problems were in fact raised. "There will not be [enough men] in the beginning…gradually there will be," he said. "We are boarding armed very selectively, not everyone, but there is no choice, because someone may be shot."
Minister Benny Begin asked "What possibilities do they have to block off the bridge?" to which the chief of staff answered that this was possible "but in the end with force we will be able to do it."
Lindenstrauss: Security officials anticipated armed conflict
The comptroller repeated the statements presented to him by the Prime Minister's Office in their defense five times throughout the report, but at the end he rejects them, stating that in fact Netanyahu was presented with the possibility of a violent conflict.
"IDF estimates presented to the government, including the prime minister, did in fact state that the flotilla could be stopped, Lindenstrauss wrote in the report.
"However, different security officials, including the minister of defense and the IDF chief of staff, warned that the incident won't be peaceful, and could escalate to use of weapons and firing at our soldiers, and that it was believed that the passengers would oppose the actions of the IDF, and that there will be a conflict with them," he added.
Lindenstrauss said that in "the inspections leading up to the report, we couldn't find any evidence that the defense minister checked the IDF's preparedness for dealing with violent activity on the part of the passengers, though he himself pointed out that this was possible…. In the opinion of the state comptroller the government, the prime minister, the seven-member senior minister forum should have looked into the objectives and plans of the military action in a orderly manner; especially since they themselves realized the action had wide reaching reproductions."
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With that in mind, the comptroller also critisized for the military, which he said "didn't stress or clarify to the prime minister the possible reproductions dealing with a violent response may have."
Comptroller: Superficial, undocumented debate ahead of flotilla
Lindenstrauss stated that one of the main reasons that led to the flawed decision making process regarding the Turkish flotilla was the absence of any orderly discussion by the cabinet or any other forum of senior ministers on the subject.
The comptroller stated that Netanyahu's conduct in this matter was "in opposition to all standards set by the Winograd Committee," which looked into the failings in the Second Lebanese War in 2006.
"Despite the fact that information concerning the Turkish flotilla began accumulating at the beginning of 2010, and despite the recognition by the prime minister that it represented an irregular event, the decision-making process was done without proper coordination," Lindenstrauss added.
He added that working meetings between Netanyahu and Barak were held with only the PM and defense minister present, without any preparation or documentation, saying that it wasn't "clear which decisions were made during, decisions that were, on any account, not summed in writing."
"As a result, it isn’t clear what the ministers understood and knew, having not participated in the private meetings concerning ways to deal with the flotilla," Lindenstrauss added.
Netanyahu and his office tried to present the failure to convene the cabinet's diplomatic-security forum as a procedural issue, and not an essential one, with the Prime Minister's Office telling the comptroller: "The takeover of the Turkish flotilla is a simple military operation, one which the army is prepared to deal with without any special problems, and under those circumstances there was no justification to bring up the Turkish flotilla at the cabinet."
The comptroller's report reveals that the one "forum of seven" meeting that did take place, five days prior to the takeover, and in which it was decided to halt the flotilla using force and on passing responsibility for the operation to the defense minister, was hastily convened and conducted in an unprofessional manner.
Lindenstrauss severely criticized that session, emphasizing that Netanyahu called the meeting without due notice and after some of the flotilla's ships had already set sail.
"The meeting's participants were unaware of the purpose of the debate and its content, and, on any account, did not have enough time to prepare for it," he wrote.
According to the report, ministers received only a general overview of the flotilla, without any discussion as to the full breadth of the operations consequences, and didn't hear of alternatives to deal with the situation.
"In reality, the prime minister made the decision as to the way to deal with the Turkish flotilla based on the discussion held in this forum, and based on the recommendations of his friends," Lindenstrauss said.
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