Many failures were exposed by the state comptroller’s comprehensive and professional report on the 2014 Gaza war released Tuesday. The list is long: a lack of preparedness against Hamas’ tunnels, relevant and even critical intelligence kept from the cabinet, the army’s deficient operational plans, and shortfalls by then-Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz and his Military Intelligence chief, Aviv Kochavi. These are all important and interesting, but they’re not the key issue.
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The biggest story of the report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira involves what was done, and what was not done, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defense and foreign affairs chiefs at the time Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman and the rest of the cabinet to prevent the war. Delicately and intelligently, Shapira and his staff drew a large question mark over the politicians’ efforts in the year leading up to the war in an area that's their sole responsibility – policy and strategy.
According to the report, the greatest failure was the political one. These parts of the report are a must read. It’s here where the public debate in the coming days and weeks should focus.
The story of the war that broke out in July 2014 begins a year and three months earlier – at a cabinet meeting in April 2013. Then-Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Eitan Dangot warned the ministers about Gaza’s difficult humanitarian and economic conditions that could lead to a explosion within two years. Dangot’s prophecy of doom wasn’t entirely on the mark – it came true within less than a year and a half.
Between that cabinet meeting and the war’s outbreak the government did almost nothing to deal with Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, which only grew worse. Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Lieberman and the other ministers didn’t hold one serious meeting on the issue. When the ministers did meet for what was wrongly called a “strategic discussion” on Israel’s Gaza policy, the issue was presented narrowly as a problem whose solutions were purely military.
The Foreign Ministry didn’t take part in that discussion, the National Security Council abused its office and failed to present political alternatives, Netanyahu and Ya’alon rejected out of hand diplomatic options that might have stabilized or improved the situation in Gaza, and the cabinet members, except for Tzipi Livni, kept quiet, nodded and approved the army’s recommendations.
If Dangot’s warning was one side of the political failure described in the state comptroller’s report, the other was the statement by Ya’alon during a discussion in his office two days after the war broke out. As Ya’alon said: “If Hamas’ distress had been addressed a few months ago, Hamas might have avoided the current escalation.” The state comptroller repeated three times this quote in which Ya’alon concedes in real time that the war could have been prevented.
And yet in all the months that preceded the war, not only did the government do almost nothing to address Gaza’s humanitarian and economic crisis, it helped make it worse. That was so when Netanyahu imposed sanctions on the Fatah-Hamas unity government in early June 2014, and three weeks later when Lieberman wanted to declare the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, persona non grata only because he tried to help resolve the crisis in salary payments to Gaza’s public servants. That problem was a volcano waiting to erupt.
In Serry’s recent book “The Endless Quest for Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” he describes how in October 2014, two months after the war ended, that same Israeli government agreed and even encouraged the United Nations to help resolve the salary crisis.
“Four months after Lieberman had wanted me thrown out of Israel, the UN after all facilitated with Israel’s tacit knowledge and encouragement an exceptional humanitarian payment in Gaza," Serry writes. "Between these two extraordinary events a terrible 50 day war had raged that summer with no winner and at an unacceptable human cost . It took a war in which Gaza was smashed to pieces for Israel to realize that it had to change course.”
But Israel hadn’t really changed course. Fifty days of war didn’t produce even the most minuscule change in Gaza’s situation. After 73 dead on the Israeli side and more than 2,200 on the Palestinian side, and severe diplomatic and economic damage, we’re back to zero. None of Netanyahu’s self-praise about the operation’s achievements will change this fact. All the security, humanitarian and political problems in Gaza on the eve of the war have only worsened in the two and a half years since.
Since the end of the war, Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Lieberman have talked a lot but have done almost nothing to change Gaza policy or deal with the severe humanitarian crisis there. The prime minister has sent Deputy Public Diplomacy Minister Michael Oren to European capitals with a presentation on possible projects for Gaza, but there have been no strategic decisions. For the past year and a half, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has been trying to hold a serious discussion in the cabinet about his plan to build an island off Gaza that would serve as a seaport and an airport and open Gaza to the world.
IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot favors this plan, as do many of the ministers, but Netanyahu is stifling it. Meanwhile, the situation in Gaza is worsening, reconstruction isn’t moving ahead, Hamas is arming and the closure is tightening. Neglect and the avoiding of decisions merely set the foundations for the next war.
Exactly one year ago, Military Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi stood before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and made statements that stirred bad deja vu feelings like “the declining economic situation in the Gaza Strip could lead to an explosion directed against Israel.”
In today’s reality, the next war in Gaza is just a matter of time; senior cabinet ministers have already set a date for it: the coming spring. If Netanyahu, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett don’t want Halevi’s words to become a chapter in the next state comptroller’s report, they should meet urgently and make political decisions that will prevent the next war.