Recordings of Israel's 2014 Gaza War Reveal Cabinet Rifts, Army Misjudgment

Ex-Defense Minister Ya’alon to Economy Minister Bennett during Operation Protective Edge: 'You won’t manage the army for me'; Bennett: 'I will if the reporting is false.'

A Palestinian fighter from the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement,  inside an underground tunnel in the Gaza Strip, August 18, 2014.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Newly publicized recordings of cabinet discussions during Israel's 2014 war in the Gaza Strip show the tense relations between then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, as well as the defense establishment's opposition to a ground operation.

According to a report by Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday, Bennett criticized Ya’alon in the recordings for opposing an invasion of the Strip during Operation Protective Edge, arguing that Israel Defense Forces brass and defense establishment should “come to the cabinet with a mind to go on the offensive, like galloping horses, not lazy bulls.”

The IDF operation was launched on July 8 and lasted 50 days.

As reported previously in Haaretz, Bennett demanded an attack on the cross-border tunnels dug by Hamas as early as June 30, in response to the murder of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank – Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah – and as a means of removing the threat to communities along the Gaza border. Ya’alon and senior military officers objected to such a move, believing that the incident should be contained and defensive measures should be taken in order to prevent a major attack through a tunnel in the Kerem Shalom area.

During discussions held before the operation began, the head of IDF Military Intelligence at the time, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, told cabinet members that there were numerous indications that the Islamist Hamas movement was not intent on entering a confrontation.

Although Ya’alon and then-Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz clarified that they opposed a ground operation per se, Gantz proposed undertaking a “strategic uncovering of Hamas’ tunnel program.” Bennett asked how long such action would take and Gantz replied “two or three days.”

Gantz’s assessment was similar to Ya’alon’s declaration during the fighting itself, when he stated on July 20 as ground forces were eventually being deployed, that destroying the tunnels would take two to three days. In fact, that phase of the operation lasted 19 days. There was thus a substantial gap between the optimistic assessments by Gantz and Ya’alon, based on IDF operational plans, and the troops' lack of preparation for dealing with the subterranean passageways, including a dire shortage of suitable equipment and the absence of a designated procedure for destroying the tunnels.

Only after fighting had begun did the Engineering Corps distribute professional guidelines regarding the location and destruction of these tunnels.

On July 7, as Operation Protective Edge was about to be launched, Ya’alon repeated his belief that a cease-fire with Hamas should be sought. “Egyptian mediation should be fully utilized,” he said, according to the newly released recordings, but Bennett replied that he was recommending taking action to neutralize the tunnel threat.

“And if you achieve quiet for three years without destroying them, what’s so bad about that?” asked Ya’alon.

Bennett was adamant: “If we sustain a strategic blow, it will be a hundred-fold worse than the Gilad Shalit incident [a reference to the IDF soldier held captive by Hamas for over five years and freed in a prisoner swap in 2011]. It’s better to pre-empt that.”

“And after we go in," Ya'alon persists, "won’t they build additional tunnels?”

Later, the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, presented cabinet members with a specific plan to neutralize any tunnels lying within one kilometer from the Gaza-Israel border. The chief-of-staff and defense minister objected to it, and the cabinet did not give its approval. Ya’alon emphasized that the threat posed by the underground passages would not be removed during the current round of fighting. “I regard this as an unsolved problem that we won’t solve this time around,” he said.

Then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed a large-scale attack by ground forces in the Strip, but said that if that wasn’t an option and the choice was between acting against the tunnels and a cease-fire, he was in favor of the latter.

On July 18 the ground offensive began.

On July 27, a day when dozens of infantrymen and other soldiers were killed, cabinet discussion heated up. “You won’t manage the army for me,” Ya’alon told Bennett after finding out that the latter had contacted senior IDF officers without his knowledge. “You won’t return from visiting the area and tell me what to do and what not to do, do you hear me?”

“I will do so, if reports are false,” Bennett retorted. Ya’alon insisted that he was giving true reports from the field, and at some point asked if he was required to report to Bennett. The latter replied: “Of course you are.”

Bennett later again attacked Ya’alon and the army brass, saying he expected them to come to the cabinet with aggressive, offensive operational plans. Ya’alon assailed Bennett for independently collecting data from field units, including the Givati Brigade, as well as from former chief military rabbi Avichai Rontzky.

“Is it legitimate for a politician to contact officers directly, using it for manipulations against the chief-of-staff at cabinet meetings, describing him as a lazy horse in comparison to officers in the field, who are like galloping stallions? That’s anarchy, not democracy,” said Ya’alon in an interview to Haaretz in October 2014.

PM's 'groundless claims'

The IDF had indeed been ill prepared for the threat posed by the Hamas tunnels, MK Jacob Perry (Yesh Atid) – who as science minister in 2014 had been an observer at cabinet meetings – said Tuesday in response to the revelation of the recordings on Army Radio.

“There is no doubt that the army came unprepared in this area, and recent claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to which many cabinet discussions had been devoted to the matter are unfortunately groundless. He was not telling the truth,” declared Perry, a former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service.

Perry added that since most cabinet members had very little military experience, the alternatives presented to them were few in number, if any. “When you sit as a minister and listen to operational plans, as good as they may be, you’re not provided with enough alternatives so as to ask questions, probe and perhaps reach a better decision. You’re left on your own,” he said.

A subcommittee of the Knesset State Control Committee was due to hold a vote Tuesday on declassifying the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge, which dealt with the cabinet’s handling of events during the war and the way it dealt with the tunnel threat. If the report is declassified it will go the defense establishment for removal of sensitive material before publication.

For its part, the Prime Minister’s Bureau said Netanyahu does not oppose publishing unclassified parts of the report.