When the security cabinet met last Tuesday evening at the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv, Operation Protective Edge was 12 hours into a 72-hour cease-fire that had been declared by Egypt. Ministers present at the meeting said that, at some point, it took on the nature of the kind of wrap-up typical of courses in the army.
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One minister, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the most prominent thing about remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz was their self-aggrandizement. “For several minutes they enumerated the achievements of the operation; how we succeeded in deterring Hamas and the excellent cooperation among the forces,” a minister said.
Netanyahu also reported to ministers on the departure of an Israeli delegation to Cairo for talks on a long-term and stable cease-fire. The day before, when Israel agreed to the cease-fire, ministers were updated by phone a few minutes before the news was reported in the media.
When Economy Minister Naftali Bennett received a phone call about the cease-fire from National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, Bennett quickly stated his opposition to it, and then found out that this was not a vote but simply a report. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said she was also surprised by the phone call, which she received from Netanyahu’s bureau.
Just three days before, she had taken part in a security cabinet meeting in which it was decided not to negotiate with Hamas, and she had been giving constant interviews about it. Other ministers said they only heard about the cease-fire talks from Netanyahu’s advisers after they had already seen the report on television.
The strange experience last Monday night led several ministers at Tuesday night’s meeting to ask Netanyahu for a proper discussion on Israel’s position before the delegation left for Cairo. “Ministers wanted to get into the details, but Netanyahu said it was too early and first the delegation had to hear what Egypt had to say,” a minister who took part in the meeting said.
The result was that there wasn’t a proper discussion that night about Israel’s negotiating policy in Cairo.
The Winograd Commission, which examined Israel’s failures in the Second Lebanon War, pointed out that the government had not conducted proper discussions of an exit strategy, and that there had been no direct connection between the military operation and diplomatic achievements. The situation in Operation Protective Edge was not so different, in that respect.
In fact, ministers at that meeting said that no discussion of diplomatic issues has taken place since Tuesday, and there have been no further meetings of the security cabinet. The ministers hear daily from the media about what positions Israel is ostensibly presenting at the Cairo talks, such as the easing of restrictions at Gaza crossings, involving the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip or a proposal to release prisoners in exchange for the bodies of two IDF soldiers held by Hamas. But they say they have no way of knowing whether they are correct or not.
Last night, when Israel agreed to another 72-hour cease-fire proposed by Egypt, the same telephone calls were made, with no debate about the move. “We are almost completely blind when it comes to the Egyptian-brokered negotiations,” a minister said. “Since last Tuesday evening, I have no idea what’s happening. Netanyahu works alone with Ya’alon and a few advisers, and does not consult the ministers.”
Another minister added: “When an agreement is presented, the prime minister will bring it to the security cabinet as a done deal. If we make comments, they’ll tell us they’ve already said yes to Egyptian President al-Sissi and if we say no, it will create a political crisis.”
Ministers say there is a sense that many of the conclusions and recommendations of the Winograd Commission are not being implemented this time. However, Netanyahu is applying the commission’s recommendation calling for more frequent meetings of the security cabinet. Netanyahu called such meetings once every two or three days during the fighting. In addition, as recommended by the Commission, due to leaks the number of members of the security cabinet was cut almost in half relative to the period of the Second Lebanon War. This reduced the leaks, but did not plug them entirely.
One area in which lessons from the Second Lebanon War seem not to have been applied was the almost complete dominance of the army during meetings. “There were hours and hours of reports by IDF officers, but little discussion by ministers of significant points,” a minister said.
Ministers said it frequently felt like the IDF had a monopoly on the information presented at the meetings, as well as of assessments. The ministers were not given written reports before the meetings and could base their thoughts only on what they heard from Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service during the meetings.
“The army presented the information it wanted, and sometimes ministers had to cross-examine them to get answers,” a minister said. There were no arguments between MI and the Shin Bet; the information presented by both bodies was almost identical, a minister added.
As in the Second Lebanon War, the military presented almost no alternatives to the operation. Some of the ministers said that if such alternatives were presented, they were practically fictitious and seemed designed to push the ministers to the position the army preferred.
The Winograd Commission called for the army to present a second opinion – other than that of the security bodies – and to involve the Foreign Ministry in discussions of diplomatic-security issues, to strengthen the National Security Council and to allow the council to present an independent opinion on diplomatic-security matters.
In reality, there was no difference from the situation in 2006. Cabinet ministers say that National Security Adviser Cohen prepared the meetings, coordinated between the various bodies and managed the presentation of remarks to the ministers, but that the council presented hardly any independent views.
According to one of the ministers, the work of the Foreign Ministry was marginal to the cabinet discussions. Foreign Minister director-general Nissim Ben-Sheetrit took part in all the meetings, but the Foreign Ministry was hardly given a chance to present alternatives to diplomatic steps. In fact, the Foreign Ministry’s center for diplomatic research presented a different viewpoint to that of the Shin Bet and MI, saying that Hamas was not seeking a cease-fire, but the ministers were hardly exposed to the center’s evaluations.
“The method hasn’t changed since the Second Lebanon War,” said one security cabinet minister. “There were no debates between the various bodies and there was no dissent.”