Defense Minister Blames Military for Failure of Gaza Flotilla Operation

Barak contradicts Netanyahu's prior testimony to Turkel Committee investigating raid.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday told the Turkel Committee investigating the flotilla to Gaza that the failure of the operation did not stem from the decision to carry it out, but rather from its planning and implementation by the army.

Although Barak said he took "full responsibility for the directives by the government," he also deflected to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi blame that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had cast in his direction in Netanyahu's testimony on Monday to the committee.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak testifies before the Turkel Committee, August 10, 2010

Ashkenazi is to testify before the committee on Wednesday morning.

Barak also told the committee that he had been was completely unaware of problems and tensions in working relations between naval intelligence, Military Intelligence and the Mossad during preparations for the takeover of the flotilla.

"I read about it in the Eiland report," Barak said, referring to the internal IDF probe into the flotilla by Maj. Gen. (res ) Giora Eiland.

Barak made the statements in response to questions by committee chairman Jacob Turkel and former Ambassador Reuven Merhav, a former senior Mossad official.

"On the matter of intelligence, the picture seems to be that those who should have been dealing with it were not. The navy was the general contractor for the matter and expression was not given to the other branches," Merhav said.

Barak evaded a direct response to this statement by saying: "I only know what the Eiland report says."

Barak said: "There are many work methods and channels between naval intelligence, MI and the Mossad. The intelligence apparatus do not communicate through the chief of staff or the defense minister. You should hear about this from Eiland."

Barak asked to expand on his remarks in a closed-door session. He said that in preparatory discussions for the operation he instructed that more intelligence be gathered to ascertain whether there were people belonging to global terror groups on the ships. He said naval intelligence had believed there could be a clash with people on the ships, but not that they were "terror ships." Barak said: "It was clear that it was bigger than in the past but no one imagined that we would find ourselves with that result in the end."

Barak asked to speak more about relations with Turkey behind closed doors. He said relations had been worsening for the previous 18 months before the flotilla, and the incident caused a further decline. "It is in our interest to repair these relations," he said.

Barak was much more conversant with the details than Netanyahu had been in his testimony the previous day. While Netanyahu did not know simple things like the date of a meeting of the seven senior ministers, Barak came prepared with a detailed survey of every detail of the preparatory meeting of the seven ministers and the operation itself.

After being reprimanded at the beginning of his testimony by Turkel for tardiness in handing in written materials the committee had asked for, he spoke almost non-stop. "You are speaking quickly and are cramming us with details," Merhav intervened at one point. "I would like to move on to the question phase."

Barak then asked for another 20 minutes to continue his survey. He did not avoid any of the committee's questions, including the more sensitive ones, as opposed to Netanyahu, who evaded direct responses six times. Barak expanded on each of the questions behind closed doors for over two hours, while Netanyahu only testified for one hour behind closed doors.

Only a few minutes into his testimony, Barak said he took full responsibility for the government's directives to the military." However, he then quickly pointed a finger at Ashkenazi and Israel Navy commander Adm. Eliezer Marom.

Barak told the committee that in preparatory discussions and the meeting of the septet, Ashkenazi had raised concerns over the media and political implications of the operation but at no time said the flotilla should not be stopped by force. "The chief of staff said it would not be simple, but we will do it," Barak said.

"The army has to be able to say that the damage is greater than the benefit, and therefore they recommend not implementing. In this case, they did not say it. The army said, 'there will be friction, harsh pictures, violence, maybe injuries,' but they did not say there was no way to implement the takeover."

Barak's statements contradicted Netanyahu's testimony from the previous day on several points. For example, Netanyahu said that on May 26 when the seven ministers approved the operation, they did not discuss details, but only its "media effect." However, Barak said that during the meeting the seven were "presented with the intelligence picture, the outlines of the plan and even mention of extreme situations that could develop."

Netanyahu's associates said yesterday: "There are minutes of the meeting of the seven and they will make things clear. There are no contradictions in the testimonies. They are both telling the truth and each one is giving his own interpretation."

In his testimony, Barak said: "Ministers, without portfolio but with common sense, asked whether the force might find itself outnumbered and forced to open fire out of weakness. Another minister asked what would happen if 30 people blocked the way to the ship's bridge."

He was apparently referring to ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor.

Barak chuckled as he refered to a minister, apparently Moshe Ya'alon, who asked what kind of gloves the commandos would wear when sliding down the ropes from the helicopters onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara.

"All this shows that there was no danger that the ministers did not understand what was under discussion. All the ministers supported the position that the flotilla had to be stopped, despite all the risks."