Netanyahu Returns Fire Over Claims of Mishandled Tunnel Threat in Gaza War

'The claim that there was no serious discussion about the tunnels in the diplomatic-security cabinet is far from the truth,'Netanyahu says at a meeting with military reporters.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a weekly cabinet briefing meeting in Jerusalem July 24, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a weekly cabinet briefing meeting in Jerusalem July 24, 2016. Credit: Ronen Zvulun, AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoted almost three hours Monday to his first meeting with military reporters.

He gave a well-organized lecture on Israel’s strategic situation and the network of alliances he has been building, both inside and outside the region, with the help of Israel’s intelligence and technological edge in dealing with global instability and terror.

That part of the briefing, however, wasn’t much different than what he has said in many public appearances.

The main reason for the meeting, which was convened on short notice, emerged only towards the end: Netanyahu is seeking to repulse criticism of his handling of the tunnel threat from the Gaza Strip before and during the war with Hamas in summer 2014.

This criticism began in the cabinet, especially from Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and was echoed in a draft report by the state comptroller. Just recently, more than 30 families whose sons were killed in the war have demanded a state commission of inquiry into its conduct.

The draft report, some of whose findings were first reported by Haaretz two months ago, didn’t portray Netanyahu as the main culprit for the diplomatic-security cabinet’s lack of information about the tunnels before the war began.

The bereaved families’ accusations, in contrast, are aimed primarily at Netanyahu, and he wants to silence them before the political storm the comptroller’s report is expected to foment erupts. The comptroller is apparently eyeing a publication date sometime around the Jewish holidays in October, though it could be postponed.

Based on the briefing, it seems Netanyahu has no shortage of artillery with which to repel the accusations. A document prepared by the National Security Council and the prime minister’s military secretary, whose main points have already been shown to some of the bereaved families, lists a series of steps that were taken before the war.

The diplomatic-security cabinet discussed the tunnels at eight separate meetings between November 2013 and June 30, 2014, the day the bodies of three kidnapped teens were found in the West Bank.

The war began a week later. Netanyahu also held several meetings with senior army officers, including in the Gaza Division, to discuss technological and operational solutions to the threat.

He wouldn’t permit most of what he said at the briefing to be quoted, but he made an exception for this statement:

“The claim that there was no serious discussion about the tunnels in the diplomatic-security cabinet is far from the truth.”

Nevertheless, the fact that the tunnels were discussed at eight meetings says nothing about the depth of these discussions, or whether they resulted in clear operational instructions and a timetable for dealing with the threat.

Between the lines, Netanyahu sounded highly skeptical of both the comptroller’s investigation in particular and government oversight agencies in general.

He feels they focus too much on process, on a “laundry list” of meetings that ought to be held and actions that ought to be taken according to protocol, rather than focusing on the quality of the decisions.

On this issue, Netanyahu gives himself high marks. He sees the 2014 war as a big success. Hamas achieved none of its demands, the army did what needed to be done and left without getting bogged down in a Gaza quagmire, and two years later, Hamas remains reluctant to start another war.

In the face of the political threat posed by Bennett – the war’s other big critic, Avigdor Lieberman, has gone quiet since being appointed defense minister – Netanyahu is so far aligning himself with the two men who ran the war together with him: former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. But Ya’alon is now Netanyahu’s avowed enemy, and Gantz also won’t be joining Netanyahu’s Likud party anytime soon.

This may be all in the listener’s imagination, but given how many times during Monday’s briefing Netanyahu mentioned the orders he gave to prepare for tackling the tunnels, it seemed he might also be preparing an alternate line of defense that involves shifting the blame to the defense establishment. In this regard, it’s worth nothing that Israel still doesn’t have a proven and effective technological solution to the tunnels like the one it has against rockets.

While Netanyahu was sitting with military reporters in his office, Lieberman was at the Knesset facing his first Question Time. MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), author of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s buried report on the 2014 war, asked about reports in the Palestinian media that Israel agreed this week to let Qatar pay the salaries of Hamas government employees in Gaza.

Shelah noted that just two weeks before the war began, Lieberman, then the foreign minister, threatened to deport UN envoy Robert Serry because he tried to transfer Qatari money to Gaza for that very purpose. Blocking those salary payments was a factor in the war’s outbreak, even though Israel knew Hamas was better prepared for a tunnel fight than it was.

“Have you now changed your mind about the money, and did this stem from the fact that you acted rashly two years ago?” Shelah asked. Lieberman didn’t answer directly, but he didn’t deny that the Qatari funds have been transferred.

Netanyahu’s briefing also addressed the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier now standing trial for killing a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron.

He defended his decision to telephone the soldier’s father, saying he told the father to trust the chief of staff, the soldier’s commanders, the IDF’s investigation and the courts. What really happened will be decided in court, and “I didn’t want to intervene,” he said.

But given Azaria’s harsh rhetoric against senior IDF officers, whom he accuses of sacrificing him, it seems that if this was truly Netanyahu’s message, the family doesn’t agree.

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