The Israeli Army and Intelligence’s Costly Battle Over Who Gets Credit

As the sides bicker over whether the military was warned about the tunnels before the Gaza war, Benjamin Netanyahu is busy putting out the wrong kinds of fires.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers inspect a Gaza tunnel.
Israeli soldiers inspect a Gaza tunnel.Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Despite the recent wave of Palestinian terror attacks on city streets and hitchhiking stops, Israel’s political and military leaders have spent lots of time in recent days on something else: the fight between the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service over issues linked to the Gaza war over the summer. The offices of the prime minister and defense minister are at pains to make peace between the two organizations. When Jewish wars break out, the Arabs can wait.

By early September, the two sides were bickering about who knew what and when in the months before the war. The Shin Bet described the prewar escalation in Gaza as a thought-out process led by Hamas’ military wing, one that aimed to break the Israeli-Egyptian embargo on the Strip. Military Intelligence, in contrast, viewed the events as more coincidental and unplanned.

Both parties attach great weight to Hamas’ preparations to carry out an attack via a tunnel in the Kerem Shalom area on the Strip’s southern border. In April, three months before the war, the Shin Bet sent a document to the government and intelligence community warning that Hamas planned a large-scale attack, during which it would try to kidnap civilians or soldiers through a tunnel. That attack was foiled in early July and the Hamas men were killed, but from there things escalated quickly to war.

During the weeks before Operation Protective Edge, there was talk in both the Shin Bet and Southern Command of a “July war” that Hamas might launch. But the term never became part of an official scenario, and after the war MI denied any knowledge of it, though Southern Command officers were familiar with it.

Various disagreements broke out between the IDF and Shin Bet during the fighting, so after the war, the debate over whether there might have been advance warning was particularly explosive. After the war, the Shin Bet insisted it had accurately predicted what Hamas would do, while MI accused the security service of exaggerating its prescience as a way to take credit for the operation’s successes.

On Tuesday, the Channel 2 investigative news program “Uvda” (“Fact”) took the story two significant steps further. First, host Ilana Dayan let each side besmirch the other face to face. Second, the program moved back the date of the Shin Bet’s original warning to January from April.

In a most exceptional move, R, head of the Shin Bet’s southern district, and two other Shin Bet officials were interviewed (with their faces obscured). They said the Shin Bet was convinced as early as January that Hamas planned to go to war, and that the army had been warned.

Viewers could draw the intended conclusion: If the Shin Bet knew and we were still surprised, apparently someone in the army messed up. In his own interview with Dayan, IDF Spokesman Moti Almoz categorically denied that any such early warnings had been issued.

The army saw the broadcast as the crossing of a red line, especially since no Shin Bet official would appear on television without the approval of the organization’s chief, Yoram Cohen. What’s more, although the agency’s warnings in April are supported by documents, that isn’t the case regarding January.

This week, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has complained to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the behavior of Cohen and the Shin Bet; Gantz titled a letter to Netanyahu “Of truth and trust.” So while the last thing Netanyahu needs is to have to quell a dispute between Israel’s top two security officials, that’s exactly what he and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon are doing. As a first step, they ordered both warring parties to avoid the media.

The IDF and Shin Bet have been at each other’s throats before. When Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and dragged into Gaza through a tunnel in June 2006, the Shin Bet claimed it had given the IDF a specific alert, while the IDF claimed that this was just a general warning. Even the state comptroller’s report on the tunnel failure (the 2007 report, not the one to be released next year) included a sharp reference to the two sides’ difficult relationship.

This time is seems that, aside from the fundamental disagreements, the bad blood stems from much more personal issues, like battles over who gets the credit. The army, whose intelligence operations during the war showed plenty of gaps that require investigating, still managed to convince the media of its great success in passing quality intelligence on to combat units.

The Shin Bet wasn’t happy that in many articles its role in providing much of that information went unmentioned. The cooperation with “Uvda” was aimed at righting that perceived injustice; apparently it did a better job than Cohen had planned. Now go put out the fire.

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