In a rare public appearance on Sunday, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen was confronted with findings in the state comptroller's report regarding the functioning of the National Security Council during the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza. Cohen, who was the council’s head during the conflict, rejected allegations that the members of the inner security cabinet did not receive sufficient information at the time from the council on a range of matters.
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"It's hard for me to accept the statement that members of the security cabinet didn't know, didn't understand or didn't have enough information," Cohen told the State Control Committee, referring to information about the network of tunnels that Hamas had built, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and possible alternative policies to military action during the summer of 2014.
"There is no subject that members of the security cabinet didn’t known anything about. The subject of the tunnels was discussed, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip was discussed, the strategic alternatives were discussed many months before this [military] campaign began," said Cohen, who took office as the director of the Mossad just over a year ago.
"The transcripts show all of the subjects," he claimed. "There is not one subject that wasn't discussed, that wasn't hinted at, or with more than a hint in the course of the security cabinet's deliberations."
In response to a question from State Control Committee chairwoman Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid), Cohen rejected the allegation that security cabinet ministers were left with open questions and had not been provided with sufficient information on these subjects. "Every security cabinet member can raise his hand and say: 'I want to study this subject now.'"
"The security cabinet received a huge amount of information, huge numbers of security surveys from the head of the [Israel Defense Forces'] Intelligence Corps, the head of the Shit Bet [security service], the defense minister and the Prime Minister's Office regarding things that were happening or that were liable to happen in that arena in the months leading up to Operation Protective Edge," said Cohen, referring to the official name of the 2014 war in Israel. "In the course of the [situation] assessment, there were dozens of security cabinet discussions. Dozens. I remember days on which the security cabinet met twice in one day, including Friday nights."
For his part, Yossi Beinhorn, the author of the report, took issue with Cohen's assertions, saying that they were "at variance with facts that we see in the minutes and that we presented in the report." Beinhorn continued: "You say that there was mention in the security cabinet of a humanitarian problem. When a request was submitted to have a discussion of the humanitarian problem, was a discussion held? Were the major gaps in intelligence regarding the Gaza Strip, which were important for the purposes of embarking on the operation, mentioned in a matter fitting for gaps of that kind? Was there a discussion of the air force and its capabilities? Ministers also could have asked additional questions."
Cohen addressed the claim that the National Security Council had not done enough to encourage consideration of alternatives to a military operation. "There were very comprehensive discussions, including diplomatic alternatives. This was presented. I made a presentation," he said. But Cohen was also critical of what he deemed the preoccupation with the question of alternatives. "You can't return to discuss these alternatives over and over." Calling the approach "obsessive" and "almost purposeless," he said sometimes there are no alternatives.
Itamar Ya'ar, the former deputy head of the National Security Council, told the committee that the council needs to challenge the prime minister and force him to convene debate on issues that don't interest him. "The situation at the National Security Council today is much worse that in the period [covered by] the report," he said. "The National Security Council needs to have the information provided and processed for operative consideration."
None of the members of the State Control Committee from the governing coalition attended Sunday's hearing. Stav Shaffir of the opposition (Zionist Union) called for the committee to vote in favor of establishing a state commission of inquiry that would examine conduct on the military and political levels relating to the war. Committee chairwoman Elharar said she would permit various officials to present the lessons that they have drawn before allowing a vote on convening a state commission of inquiry.
In the course of the committee's session, it became clear that although the recommendations of a committee headed by retired Maj. Gen. Ya'akov Amidror on the functioning of the security cabinet had been submitted three months ago, the security cabinet had not yet held a debate on them. Elharar urged the National Security Council to push for a session on the report as soon as possible and asked that the Control Committee be kept informed about it.
The current acting head of the National Security Council, Jacob Nagel, is in China this week as part of an official delegation headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Elharar said she would summon Nagel to a meeting of the Control Committee that is to be attended by Netanyahu in a few weeks.