MESS Report / Worrying Signs at Sea

The picture arising from the report of Maj. Gen. Eiland on the flotilla affair is one of non-creative, collective thinking and lack of foresight in the army

The report prepared by the committee led by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland on the Gaza flotilla episode leaves the Israel Defense Forces with slight, tolerable bruises. While Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi disagrees with some of its conclusions, describing them as too harsh, the committee did provide him and the IDF with a verdict that is close to an acquittal. The full report has not been made public: Only the main points were presented in the media briefing.

The Mavi Marmara

For his part, Eiland seems to have wanted to avoid a phenomenon that characterizes many commissions of inquiry, notably that of the Winograd panel that examined the Second Lebanon War: being biased by observation of an event in retrospect. He maintains that the events must be studied from the start to the finish, with an effort to understand what those involved knew, in real time.

Still, even what was described in soft, almost apologetic language to the press (in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Alex Fishman called Eiland the "abashed general" ), reflects worrisome findings about the present state of the IDF, especially as we have been promised time and again that there is no comparison between the army of today and the army as it was in 2006.

The picture that arises from the report is one of collective thinking in the IDF that almost deliberately avoids taking an original approach to the problem at hand. Didn't the tactic of rappelling down from helicopters work five times in the past? Great, let's try it again, even though we know that the number of vessels, and the passengers and their ideological background are different this time from anything we've encountered before. Add to this the fact that the army had all the time in the world to plan and prepare its response.

Totally by chance, the Eiland report was presented on the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. One of the lessons the IDF drew from the debriefings of that war was the need to reestablish the principle of tenacity in carrying out a mission. There were too many cases in Lebanon in which field commanders pulled back or delayed the progress of their forces because of specific problems (casualties, poor weather, logistics ) without grasping the damage this would cause. Since then, the IDF has sanctified the opposite approach: "No pulling back without having carried out an operation."

But what's relevant in a war is not necessarily so in an operation whose primary purpose is, for example, to stop a flotilla while not causing political damage to the state (a goal in which the army failed ). Eiland noted that the preparations did not include consideration of "conditions of non-implementation" - i.e., developments on the ground that require delay of an operation. But with neither the chief of staff nor the defense minister in the war room at the critical time, and with the naval commander choosing to situate himself on a small craft near the Turkish vessel, who was going to dare to stop the army's takeover of the boats? The commander of the squad whose fighters were about to descend on a rope from a helicopter into a truncheon-waving mob on the deck?

There were also many secondary problems that Eiland did not dwell on. These included problematic coordination between the Operations Branch, the navy and Military Intelligence, and between the new operational unit in MI (also established as a result of lessons learned in the Second Lebanon War ) and naval intelligence; rivalries between branches of the intelligence community that continue to hamper an orderly formulation of essential elements of information, or EEI (the order of priorities in collecting intelligence ); and of course an organizational culture that necessitates 500 preparatory discussions accompanied by numberless learned presentations, without one substantive meeting.

No Israeli civilians or soldiers were killed in this episode, and the home front was not rocketed. What's so depressing, says a person who was closely involved in the examination of the Lebanon war, is that even four years later Israel has failed in the implementation of a mission that should have been relatively simple.