Report on 2014 Gaza War Points to Lack of Order in Intelligence Community

After the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Israel did not divvy up the responsibilities for following developments in Gaza to the intelligence agencies in any organized fashion.

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Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, March 6, 2017.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, March 6, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The state comptroller's weak criticism over the fact that few alternatives were considered on the eve of the 2014 Gaza far has given a fresh albeit limited push to the discussion of the terrible living conditions in the Strip. Minister Yisrael Katz announced that he would resubmit his proposal to establish a port on an artificial island opposite Gaza's coast.

Naftali Bennett surprisingly came out in support of this possibility, too, as long as it could be done with a limited risk to security. His party, Habayit Hayehudi, would even consider backing other steps to ease the situation in Gaza, like giving entry permits to agricultural workers from the enclave to work in Israeli communities just inside the border, a move that Negev leaders have called for. It seems that even the ultra-rightists of Netanyahu's government understand the danger in sliding anew into war with Hamas, which grows as long as the stagnation continues.

Other assertions made by the comptroller about the quality of intelligence available to the Israel Defense Forces in dealing with the tunnel threat met sharp opposition not only from the main target of the criticism, former head of Military Intelligence Aviv Kochavi, but also from former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and other senior officials. However, the report also includes some other structural comments on the intelligence, which deserve attention. The comptroller found that after the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Israel did not divvy up the responsibilities for following developments in Gaza to the intelligence agencies in any organized fashion. Accordingly, both the handling of the tunnel threat and the management of the entire Gaza front were relegated to a relatively low place on the intelligence community’s priority list.

In other words, the comptroller was saying that there was no one in the intelligence community in charge of following Gaza. It is an issue placed at the door of prime ministers (Olmert followed by Netanyahu), who are entrusted with setting national priorities and who directly oversee two of three intelligence agencies (the Shin Bet and the Mossad). MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), a member of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee and one of the most bitter critics of the handling of Operation Protective Edge from the start, will exploit the criticism in the report to resubmit his bill to organize secret service activity next week.

Shelah says the intelligence minister has no real authority and in fact no government body supervises the activity of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, whose combined budgets near eight billion shekels ($2.2 billion), the same as that of an average government ministry. The prime minister, as the comptroller’s report indicates, certainly has no patience for this, save for debating strategic decision and the occasional approval of special operations.

This, Shelah believes, creates a situation in which there is no close supervising authority between the intelligence branches and priorities allocating reconnaissance resources. The need for such supervision is most critical because the nature of the threats on Israel has changed as a result of regional upheaval. In past, when Israel dealt mainly with threats from other states, the distribution of responsibility was clearer. The Islamic State provides a good example of the change. Threats to Israeli and Jewish targets abroad are dangers that keep the Mossad and the Shin Bet busy. What if ISIS is on the borders, like the Golan Heights and in Sinai? It is a problem for Military Intelligence and the Mossad. What about the influence of ISIS on Israeli Arabs? This is a case for the Shin Bet. All these issues require not just order, but also government supervision.

Shelah’s bill affirms the status of the intelligence minister, also as a permanent member of the cabinet, and his authority. The minister will be the prime minster’s director for secret services, which will remain subordinate to the prime minister. The minister will supervise the activity of the two services, their budget and appointments within them. He will be responsible for the daily contact between the services and the prime minister, and will also be in charge of setting the scope of the services’ activity and of arranging an annual intelligence assessment. Shelah was asked this week about the chances of the bill passing through the Knesset and the government. “There is not even a hint of a chance,” he confided. Maybe the next Knesset.

No confession, no apology

The defense minister’s screw-up at a state memorial service for victims whose place of burial is unknown last Sunday could have been forgiven. True, Avigdor Lieberman, who usually prefers to minimize his presence at memorial services and to share the burden with the chief of staff, repeated entire sections from the speech his predecessor Moshe Ya’alon, delivered two years ago in the same ceremony. However, no one expects a busy defense minister to write his own ceremonial speeches or to even know what his predecessor said in similar circumstances. That is exactly why a minister has aides.

The aides may also make mistakes. However, the response of Lieberman’s office, which Channel 10 aired, did not include any admittance of error, let alone an apology. The tailwind of Trump's combative response style is leaving its mark on governments across the world, and it looks like Lieberman has also adopted his attitude. “It is natural in memorial ceremonies to have stories that don’t change over time and can be repeated,” his office commented.

If this response weren't issued a few days after the publication of the comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge – and the fact that until now, the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul have not been returned – and if Israel weren’t repeating many of the same mistakes that contributed to the slide into war in the summer of 2014, this too could somehow be considered a tolerable matter.

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