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Gaza War Report Set to Worsen Netanyahu's Dark Autumn

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF commanders visiting a Hamas-dug tunnel on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, in May, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF commanders visiting a Hamas-dug tunnel on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, in May, 2016.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

Israel’s submarine affair and the forest fires over the past two weeks have pushed to the sidelines a key event. The almost-final draft of the state comptroller’s report on the 2014 Gaza war was sent to the officials who led Israel in that conflict. The draft contains several significant changes in the way the war is described and in the conclusions drawn.

When the final version is published, probably later this month, it will contain plenty of explosive material. It was no coincidence that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoted much of his long round of press briefings last summer to attempts to undermine State Comptroller Joseph Shapira.

The final version – the subjects were requested to respond by Monday – reveals that Netanyahu failed in his efforts. The comptroller once again adopts the stance of Education Minister Naftali Bennett in his clash with Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Shapira and his defense affairs chief, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Beinhorn, say the cabinet learned belatedly and partially about Hamas’ tunnel threat from Gaza. And while in the previous version Netanyahu’s responsibility was never directly mentioned, this time Netanyahu and Ya’alon receive sharper criticism. In fact the comptroller, in an unusual step, makes three personal remarks about Netanyahu’s performance.

It’s too early to assess the political implications of these findings, assuming they don’t somehow fall by the wayside in the final version. In the meantime, despite the submarine affair and the controversial bill to legalize West Bank outposts, Netanyahu seems to be navigating the political minefield safely.

Netanyahu’s recent tactic blunt attacks on his critics, especially journalists helps him sow doubt among the public. This tactic will probably be employed once again when the final report is published, especially since the long gap since the war ended in August 2014 has dulled the public’s frustration.

Shapira criticizes Netanyahu personally on three matters: for not seeking diplomatic alternatives before sliding into war, for not sharing information about the tunnel threat’s severity with the cabinet, and for not sufficiently supervising the army, which did not have operational plans to deal with the tunnels. The comptroller says the out-of-hand dismissal of diplomatic alternatives, which were not even presented to the cabinet, prevented any discussion of such options.

Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Gantz, at a press conference following the Gaza cease-fire, August 27, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The army on its own

The cabinet first discussed strategic goals in the Gaza Strip only on March 23, 2014, three months before the war broke out. Then too the discussion revolved mainly around the intensity of future military operations against Hamas, not around other options.

Shapira joins criticism that was voiced after the war: Easing the blockade and allowing the transfer of salaries from Qatar to Hamas officials in Gaza may have staved off the war.

It also turned out that the army’s strategic plans for Gaza were presented to the cabinet before it had determined any strategic goals. The comptroller says this was a faulty process. He adds that the army was forced (not for the first time) to formulate goals on its own because the politicians avoided doing so.

Since 2012, Netanyahu had repeatedly dealt with the tunnel threat, but this was done in small forums with the top brass. In the meantime, more than a year and a half passed in which cabinet members were all but excluded from information about the severity of the risks. There were only general statements that did not reflect the true situation.

The comptroller says details of the threat were only presented to the cabinet on June 30, 2014, the day the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens were found in the West Bank. This too was only done at Bennett’s insistence (as he has claimed since the war).

In his counterattack last summer, Netanyahu quoted statements he made about the tunnels before the war. The comptroller says these comments were made in passing while he was discussing other topics; Netanyahu didn’t go into detail about the threat.

In some sessions the army depicted the rocket threat as a more significant threat than the tunnels. In most cases the speakers, headed by Netanyahu, didn’t distinguish between offensive tunnels for major attacks by Hamas and defensive tunnels that the group was building in Gaza

Netanyahu isn’t the only one being hit by the comptroller. A raft of security chiefs at the time are mentioned including Ya’alon, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Shin Bet security chief Yoram Cohen, Military Intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi, MI research chief Itai Baron and National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen (who’s now Mossad chief).

In a discussion on operational plans held on December 16, 2013, Gantz said offensive tunnels might already have been in place that could facilitate raids on the border. According to the comptroller, the threat was not discussed beyond that.

20 tunnels, no big deal

At a cabinet meeting on January 9, 2014, Netanyahu said there were more than 20 tunnels, but the comptroller notes that these weren’t labeled as offensive tunnels. On March 13, Yossi Cohen noted that Hamas fighters could emerge from under a kibbutz. On July 1, Yoram Cohen presented the cabinet with details.

The comptroller notes that other than Bennett, no minister requested more details or an elaboration on plans to deal with these tunnels. This came as the army was preparing for a possible abduction raid near Kerem Shalom near southern Gaza, and Israel was preparing a resounding response in Gaza to the killing of the three teens in the West Bank.

This ties in with the third comment, perhaps the most significant one, directed personally at Netanyahu as the person in charge. It relates to the lack of supervision over the army, which before the war did not develop an appropriate response to the tunnels.

The comptroller notes that top defense and government officials knew about the seriousness of the threat no later than the end of 2013; therefore, they should have ensured that the army had operational plans in place.

A week before the war broke out, when the army brought for cabinet approval a plan to hit the tunnels from the air, Ya’alon and other officers did not clarify the implications. The army was aware that airstrikes might not be effective and that partial damage might actually hinder future ground operations to destroy the tunnels. The cabinet was unaware of this. According to Shapira, most ministers weren’t particularly interested.

In other words, plans for airstrikes followed by limited ground operations were incongruent with the threat. Shapira and Beinhorn do not directly mention the result of this: the death of dozens of soldiers in a slow and hesitant battle around the tunnels that perhaps could have been conducted more effectively and with fewer casualties.

The draft of the report on the tunnels shows why Netanyahu tried to undermine Shapira’s credibility at a news conference after the recent fires. The prime minister is expected to conduct another rearguard campaign in an attempt to ban the publication of parts of the final draft of the war report, using arguments about securing sensitive information.

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