Analysis

Gaza War Report to Buoy Bennett, Netanyahu’s Rival on the Right

Bennett's claims that he's better at protecting Israelis will be bolstered by the state comptroller's report. Bereaved parents, meanwhile, have other reasons to ensure that the report is published.

Benjamin Netanyahu, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and ex-IDF chief Benny Gantz.
Chaim Tzach / PMO

The State Control Committee will decide only Sunday whether to release the state comptroller’s report on the security cabinet’s performance during the 2014 Gaza war, though at the moment a majority in the panel seems to favor release.

A few months ago, hints from people close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led State Comptroller Joseph Shapira to prepare for a battle of attrition with the prime minister’s aides over the matter. Meanwhile, a group of families who lost sons in the war, as well as sharply worded statements from the opposition, have spurred support for the report to be released.

Shapira is expected to be ready to release the document in two or three weeks; he’s expected to discuss the threat of Hamas’ tunnels dug from Gaza and aspects of international law during the fighting. Some information in the report might be removed for security considerations, not as a result of political pressure designed to prevent embarrassment to the prime minister.

Tuesday saw a well-orchestrated leak in Yedioth Ahronoth of quotes from security-cabinet discussions during the war. Otherwise, most of the recent media attention has been on a dispute between Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Shapira, as noted in Haaretz in November, wasn't swayed in the three hearings he held for Netanyahu and his people.

Rather, Shapira fully adopted Bennett’s version, both his claim that the tunnel threat wasn't presented fully to the security cabinet, and that it was Bennett who urged Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the Israel Defense Forces’ chief at the time, Benny Gantz, to mount an offensive against the tunnels.

To Bennett’s supporters, the quotes from the cabinet (most of which don’t appear in the report) back up his claim, which he has so far stated only in a veiled way: that he’s better at protecting Israelis than Netanyahu.

Others, however, will be less impressed. There’s a big difference between good instincts about a possible military risk, as Bennett showed early on, and responsible management of a complex operation with strategic implications.

Naftali Bennett, January 16, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

While the operation that the security cabinet eventually approved damaged the tunnels, it’s unclear whether deterrence was achieved against Hamas, as Bennett had promised. And perhaps more importantly, despite the operation, Hamas had rebuilt its attack tunnels by about a year after the war.

From what has been leaked so far, the comptroller’s main conclusions are different. He notes that the security cabinet's only strategic discussion during that time was held in March 2014, around four months before the war. But a month earlier, the IDF had already completed its operational plan in the event of a war in Gaza.

In other words, the IDF drew up its plans without knowing what the politicians wanted to achieve in a war against Hamas. Nor did the army update the cabinet on its plan. Things happened exactly in the opposite order they should have happened.

Moreover, according to the comptroller, the army hadn’t crafted an advanced program for dealing with the attack tunnels. Shapira mentions Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Gantz specifically in this regard.

Shapira also rejected Netanyahu’s claim both in the hearings and in Netanyahu’s extensive media appearances last summer: that the limited operation the army had prepared for a few tunnels – an operation later revealed to be insufficient – addressed the root of the tunnel threat.

Because the army didn’t have an operational plan for the tunnels, it had neither the means nor the doctrine to deal with them. Proper training was lacking and relevant units were unprepared. Thus the state comptroller fully confirms the findings of Haaretz’s investigation on the tunnels in October 2014.

The army, too, is aware that it was unprepared for the war, as it eventually focused on the tunnel threat. The harsh investigation by Maj. Gen. Yossi Bachar on the tunnels, and extensive investigations led by Gantz and his successor, Gadi Eisenkot, reached similar conclusions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a tunnel near the Gaza border, May 3, 2016.
Amos Ben Gershom

But it was mainly the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff who were aware of the gaps in the army’s preparedness. On July 15, 2014, the security cabinet finally approved action against the tunnels after seeing aerial photos of Hamas fighters climbing out of one near Kibbutz Sufa. But by then most of the security cabinet had no idea of the real state of the IDF’s preparedness.

These ministers made no special effort to find out. Bennett’s visits to the area, which so angered Ya’alon because they hadn’t been authorized, were enough to hear about the Givati soldiers’ morale. But he didn’t learn from them in time the difficulties ahead, and his security-cabinet colleagues knew even less.

Netanyahu is proud of the conclusions of a separate committee he appointed, about streamlining the work of the security cabinet. But this probably won’t be enough to overcome the problem.

According to MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the events of recent months show that the security cabinet hasn’t learned its lesson. Netanyahu moved the submarine deal ahead with Chancellor Angela Merkel long before the cabinet knew the details. And only last September, when the IDF held a major exercise to address the great changes on the northern border, only two security cabinet members, Defense Minister Avgidor Lieberman and Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant, bothered to attend.

The report’s bottom line is nowhere explicitly stated: The army’s poor preparations, the partial oversight by politicians, the ignorance of the security cabinet, the late start of the war against the tunnels (with units insufficiently skilled) all had a price. With proper preparations, the IDF might have lost fewer soldiers and done better in the war.

The bereaved parents understand this very well. That’s a reason most of the families of these soldiers are striving to ensure that the report is published.