Gaza flotilla
Israeli naval vessels approach the port of Ashdod on Monday May 31, 2010 after intercepting a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. Photo by Reuters
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Responsibility for May's botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla rests with the Israel Defense Forces, not the government, according to a member of the Eiland Committee, the IDF's in-house inquiry into the incident.

"Responsibility can't be pushed off onto the government," Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at a closed meeting where the panel's report was presented. "As an army, we presented our capabilities and said it would work. In reality, it didn't work."

This remark by Kochavi, who until recently served as head of the General Staff's Operations Brigade, was included in an unofficial summary of the meeting, which took place in Tel Aviv on July 22, 10 days after Eiland's report was submitted to IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Haaretz has obtained a copy of the summary, and participants at the meeting - to which only the Knesset committee's seven most senior MKs were invited - confirmed to Haaretz that the quotes are accurate.

It is not clear who originally prepared the summary, but it appears that it was leaked as part of the ongoing battle between the bureaus of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Ashkenazi. That battle has recently intensified, not only due to the flotilla incident but also because the two men are at odds over when the appointment of the next chief of staff should be announced.

Barak's office said yesterday that the minister will begin interviewing candidates in the coming days. The statement said this was being done "with the knowledge of the chief of staff's office."

Barak actually met with two of the candidates last week: Deputy Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Israel's military attache in Washington, Gadi Shamni. The other candidates are the heads of the three territorial commands: Gadi Eizenkot (northern ), Avi Mizrahi (central ) and Yoav Galant (southern ). Barak will meet with Mizrahi today.

It is unclear who Barak will pick, but the three leading candidates are Galant, Gantz and Eizenkot.

The tension between Barak and Ashkenazi erupted in April, when Barak announced that he would not extend Ashkenazi's term for another year. Since then, Ashkenazi has been fighting to postpone the date on which his successor will be announced in order to reduce his time as a lame duck. Ashkenazi wants the decision put off until November, three months before his four-year term ends. But it seems Barak plans to decide either this month or next.

Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported that Ashkenazi had refused for several days to give Barak a copy of the Eiland report, finally handing it over only after heavy pressure from Barak's office. One veteran senior security official termed the Barak-Ashkenazi relationship the worst in decades between a chief of staff and defense minister. Their antipathy, he added, harms national security by impeding the conduct of the defense establishment's day-to-day affairs.

At the meeting on July 22, which was also attended by representatives from the IDF and from Barak's office, Eiland Committee members were far more critical of the IDF than they had been at their July 12 press conference on the report.

Asked about the raid's approval process, Kochavi told the MKs, "there was no problem with approval. It was presented to the defense minister and the septet [of top cabinet ministers], and the prime minister instructed the defense minister to coordinate the matter. The minister summoned [representatives of] all the ministries and the IDF, and the feeling at the end of the presentation was that everything was ready."

The IDF did not present worst-case scenarios, as it should have, Kochavi continued.

And while Naval Intelligence is weak, there was no excuse for its failure to take even the minimal step of tracking statements made by Bulent Yildirim, head of the Turkish group that sponsored the flotilla, IHH, in the preceding two months. If it had, he said, it "would have understood what was going on."

"The saddest part, in my view, was the lack of cooperation between the navy and Military Intelligence," he added.

Another Eiland Committee member, Brig. Gen. (res. ) Yuval Halamish, said that "with more effort," it would have been possible to get an agent aboard the ship.

But while Kochavi's statements could be seen as acquitting the cabinet of responsibility, this conclusion is problematic because the Eiland Committee did not examine the cabinet's conduct. Its mandate was solely to probe the IDF, and it had no access to some of the relevant cabinet documents.

In fact, senior General Staff officers were highly critical of how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and especially Barak, handled the affair.

Committee chairman Giora Eiland defended the decision not to recommend punishing any of the officers involved, saying the flotilla failure was balanced by "astonishing" successes over the last two years, of which people are unaware.

The IDF Spokesman's Office declined to comment on the content of Kochavi's remarks, but said it regretted that the security of "one of the most highly classified forums in the Knesset" had been violated, as such leaks damage state security.