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How Netanyahu Should Have Handled Criticism Over 2014 Gaza War

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, February 19, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, February 19, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is starting to sound like U.S. President Donald Trump again. After attacking the Bolshevik media and lashing out at left-wingers looking to do him ill, the State Comptroller’s Office was also targeted by Netanyahu Monday when he told fellow Likud MKs, “In contrast to the state comptroller’s report, I back the heads of the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet security service and the defense establishment.”

This is a puzzling statement at best, and an outrageous one at worst. The demand that State Comptroller Joseph Shapira demonstrate patriotism is fundamentally baseless.

The state comptroller and his employees are not supposed to express support or love for senior IDF officers. Their job is to examine those officers’ actions, just as they are meant to do in all government ministries and other government agencies.

As for the prime minister, his primary job is to lead and oversee the defense establishment. And, at least according to the comptroller’s report on the 2014 Gaza war due to be published Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t exactly pass that test with flying colors – if at all.

What’s more, the praise he heaped on himself isn’t accurate. At a critical time, when the question of supporting the army brass was put to the test, he failed miserably.

When the Sgt. Elor Azaria case first broke (after the Israeli soldier was arrested after shooting and killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron last March), the prime minister zigzagged between what the military brass expected him to do and what the public wanted, as reflected in polls. Of these two options, he chose the latter, making an unorthodox phone call to Azaria's parents. Neither IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot nor Azaria’s commanders ever got a trace of support from Netanyahu in that affair.

The personal attack on Shapira indicates that Netanyahu is under pressure. The quote was preceded by leaked comments that portrayed the writer of the report, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Beinhorn – who heads the defense division in the State Comptroller’s Office – as a clerk who doesn’t understand strategic issues.

These claims infuriated Beinhorn’s predecessor, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Or. In an unusual statement he said, “You would think the prime minister was Gen. [Bernard] Montgomery,” the British general who defeated the Germans at El Alamein. He added that “Four years with a knife between your teeth” – a reference to Netanyahu’s service in the general staff’s elite special-operations force – "doesn’t say anything about a person’s strategic management abilities in later roles."

Adding to this campaign against Shapira and Beinhorn was a Channel 10 report Sunday about Beinhorn’s son, Doron, being a minor functionary in the Habayit Hayehudi party.

Whoever leaked that information apparently sought to suggest that putting Doron Beinhorn in the 103rd slot on Naftali Bennett’s Knesset list contributed to the comptroller adopting Bennett’s version of events in the dispute with Netanyahu about the scope of the intelligence information the security cabinet received about the tunnel threat from Gaza.

That’s the same ridiculous train of thought used by the right-wing activists who sought to scuttle Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon’s promotion to Central Command commander because his wife had once signed a leftist petition.

The weird thing about all this is that it’s doubtful Netanyahu even needs this preemptive strike against the comptroller. While the report indeed uses harsh language about him, it doesn’t include any recommendations to take practical steps against the prime minister. And given the lengthy time that this report has been brewing, with its many draft versions, it’s doubtful the public has enough patience to rehash the war for more than a day or two after the report is published.

What Netanyahu could have said was, “I read the comptroller’s report, we are working to fix the problems, and we’ll continue to work to preserve Israel's security.” Instead, he chose to enter a patriotism contest with Shapira and Yossi Beinhorn.

Compared to Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is once again positioning himself as the restrained and moderate politician. Lieberman refrained from saying anything about the comptroller this week. He only attacked his fellow ministers and former ministers who, in his words, were conducting “a political discussion that undermines state security,” in the run-up to the report’s publication.

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