The embargo process, in which the State Comptroller’s Office distributes copies of its reports to media outlets a week in advance to allow journalists to read through and analyze them before the agreed-upon publication time, is breaking down in the current media climate.
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Last year both Haaretz and other media outlets published numerous details from the various draft versions of the comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge, based on leaks from documents that had been sent to the subjects of the report. This past weekend one newspaper simply ignored the embargo time, which is Tuesday afternoon, and published the main conclusions from the two chapters that deal with the performance of the security cabinet and the handling of the tunnel threat from Gaza. On Sunday one website went a step further and posted the report itself.
Efforts to present these things as educated guesses based on leaks from the report are nothing more than a joke. All media outlets got official copies of the report on the assumption they would wait until the appointed release time to publish anything.
The early publication put some of the report’s targets in a difficult situation. Ostensibly they were not to respond until the report’s official publication, but the claims against them from the report had seized the headlines, and thus the explanations and responses of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, former Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the former Military Intelligence chief and soon to be deputy chief of staff, also leaked out earlier than expected.
Since we’re talking about paratroop officers who are sensitive about their public image and aren’t used to sharp criticism, tensions rose accordingly. All the commotion was augmented by Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant, who still has accounts to settle with Ya’alon and Gantz back from the struggles over the chief-of-staff position; he issued his second harsh personal attack on the way the two functioned during the Gaza war.
One person has benefitted from the resulting situation, and that is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The final report doesn’t include any recommendations for practical steps to be taken against those the comptroller sees as responsible for the failures he found in the conduct of the war and the preparations for it, but he directs pretty harsh criticism at a host of senior officials, including Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Gantz, Kochavi, former Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen and Yossi Cohen, who was national security adviser during the war and now heads the Mossad.
Of all of them, Netanyahu is primarily responsible, for better or worse, for the results of the war. He was the one who steered Israeli policy toward escalation against Hamas in Gaza, and he was responsible, together with Ya’alon and to a lesser degree the security cabinet, for overseeing the Israel Defense Forces’ preparations for a possible Gaza campaign.
As the one primarily responsible, Netanyahu also gets credit for not capitulating to the demands of then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and political pressures to conquer Gaza and overthrow the Hamas regime – a move that could have sunk the IDF in the Gaza quagmire for many months, or could have created anarchy in the Strip or the emergence of a government identified with the Islamic State.
But the comptroller has a lot of criticism for Netanyahu as well: for not examining diplomatic alternatives during the war, not sharing with the security cabinet information that had been given to him by the IDF and Shin Bet, and faulty supervision of the army’s preparations. All these are not yet the subject of public debate.
Most of the fire is being aimed at Ya’alon and the army officers, while Netanyahu is returning from an important diplomatic mission to Australia and Singapore and continues to bolster his image as a statesman cruising somewhere in the strategic heights, far from the petty squabbling of Ya’alon, Galant and the state comptroller. Until the focus returns to Netanyahu – and his coalition partner/rival Naftali Bennett – he certainly has an interest in that.
It is doubtful that the public will display much interest in the comptroller’s conclusions. That’s unfortunate, of course. Operation Protective Edge was not the stinging failure of the Second Lebanon War. There are no few areas in which the politicians and the IDF performed better than the fiasco threesome of Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz. Still, the comptroller highlights a long list of gaps, malfunctions and blunders that were exposed in Gaza during the fighting and the months that led up to it that ought to interest every Israeli. Some of his conclusions – in particular the tough line he takes with the performance of Military Intelligence during the war – seem to be too harsh.
Despite this, the contrary line displayed by Netanyahu last summer and now being conveyed by Ya’alon is superfluous. The two are belittling the audit function, portraying it as operating solely from hindsight and getting bogged down in trifles, compared to the huge tasks which they say have been imposed on them as national leaders. They and their people are also attacking the head of the security division in the State Comptroller’s Office, Brig. Gen. Yossi Beinhorn, on grounds that since he doesn’t have similar experience with making leadership decisions in times of crisis, he cannot judge their actions.
But this is a claim that can always be raised against any auditor or judicial body. It would be better if they would address the report itself, which raises plenty of issues that need rethinking and improvement. Beinhorn’s conclusions didn’t emerge in a vacuum. One of the impressive things in the report on the tunnels is the degree to which the criticism overlaps the IDF’s own criticism of its performance during the war, as reflected in the internal investigation by Maj. Gen. Yossi Bachar on behalf of the General Staff raised in other military forums.