Generals Fear Gaza War Report Would Place Bulk of Blame on Top Brass

State comptroller holds 'dramatic' hearings ahead of report to be published next month. Draft harshly criticizes former IDF chief Benny Gantz and head of Military Intelligence Aviv Kochavi.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz on a tour north of Gaza Strip, July 5, 2014
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz on a tour north of Gaza Strip, July 5, 2014Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The political arena and the military are tensely awaiting publication of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report on Operation Protective Edge, which is expected in the second half of November.

After Sukkot, the comptroller’s office will give an “almost complete” draft of the report on the 2014 Gaza war to those mentioned in it. The first draft, which was circulated in the spring, included harsh criticism of the Israel Defense Forces’ readiness to deal with the Hamas tunnels in the Strip. The comptroller also emphasized the failure to share the extent of the tunnel threat with the security cabinet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was only mildly criticized by the comptroller in the draft, nevertheless devoted considerable time to refuting the comptroller’s conclusions during the extensive briefings he gave to journalists this summer.

Netanyahu rejected the comptroller’s conclusion that the security cabinet was not fully informed of the tunnel threat and that the plans for dealing with them, prepared with his knowledge and that of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, were deficient. Netanyahu also conducted a public argument on this issue with political rivals Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who was a security cabinet member during the war.

The IDF sent a response hundreds of pages long to the comptroller’s first draft, and a series of hearings, some of them described as “dramatic,” were held with those critiqued and their lawyers. Another round of hearings could take place early next month if those criticized request them. It may be assumed that those criticized will have an interest in delaying the release of the report as long as possible.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF commanders visiting a Hamas-dug tunnel on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, in May, 2016.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

A review of the draft report indicates that the two officers expected to bear the brunt of the criticism aimed at the military are former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and the head of Military Intelligence at the time, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Gantz is deemed responsible for the army’s insufficient preparation for the challenge of the tunnels, while MI is criticized both for the gaps in understanding the threat posed by the tunnels and its mistaken forecasts regarding Hamas’ intentions during the fighting.

Gantz, who left the IDF in February 2015 and is mentioned as a possible political candidate in the future, would be a comfortable target as far as the political leadership is concerned. Diverting the fire toward him would let Netanyahu and the ministers somewhat off the hook, and make it difficult for him to enter politics.

For Kochavi, now head of the IDF’s Northern Command, the final report will be published at a particularly undesirable time. A decision is due shortly on the appointment of the next deputy chief of staff, an essential stop en route to being named chief of staff when the current chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, leaves the post in 2019.

So long as Ya’alon was defense minister, Kochavi was considered the leading candidate for both posts (especially after the current deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, activated his self-destruct mechanism with his speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day that seemed to suggest a parallel between today’s Israel and Germany in the 1930s). But no one knows what current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman thinks. If the comptroller has harsh things to say about MI, it is liable to hurt Kochavi’s chances to advance, which is why there is a stubborn battle being waged with the comptroller over the wording to appear in the report’s final, binding version.

The head of Southern Command during Operation Protective Edge, Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, comes out relatively well in the report. The comptroller’s investigators believe the command identified the threat posed by the tunnels earlier and devoted more time and resources to it than other arms of the military. Turgeman, now on a study leave, is also contending for the post of deputy chief of staff.

A Palestinian fighter from the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, is seen inside an underground tunnel in Gaza August 18, 2014.Credit: Reuters

The General Staff fears that the final report will go relatively easy on the political echelon and focus its criticism on the IDF. But even if that occurs, the line of defense Netanyahu presented during his press briefings this summer weren’t particularly convincing. While he pointed to numerous security cabinet meetings at which the tunnels were mentioned, his rivals point out that “mentioning” the tunnels does not mean they were discussed in-depth. Even if the comptroller does conclude that the army was poorly prepared for this threat, the question remains: Where were the politicians who were meant to oversee the army’s preparations?

Just on Tuesday, Army Radio’s military reporter, Tal Lev-Ram, reported on an internal IDF investigation into the tunnels issue lead by Maj. Gen. Yossi Bachar. Bachar concluded that for most of the field commanders, the tunnels were simply an unknown and the forces ended up being sent on a mission that was foreign to them and that deviated significantly from their battle plans.

But the investigation also showed that compared to the political echelon, the IDF hastened to draw the required conclusions and make the necessary changes, including enlarging the Engineering Corps’ special missions unit, building training facilities, procuring anti-tunnel technology and updating the battle plans to close many of the gaps revealed during the war. This investigation, however, raises doubts about Netanyahu’s claims that the military had properly prepared for the mission in accordance with his instructions.

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