Amateur Fingers on the Button

The way Netanyahu and Barak performed during the botched operation at sea calls into question their ability to function in much more dangerous scenarios

At the end of March 2009, just days before presenting his government in the Knesset, prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to the 14th floor of the General Staff building in Tel Aviv. He entered the chief of staff's bureau and made his way to the office of Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Waiting for him was the most secret of top-secret material. Taking a seat in the visitors' corner, Netanyahu perused the material with amazement. He had been unaware of the extent of the Israel Defense Forces' preparations to cope with various crisis scenarios, on sea, on land and in the air.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Tomer Appelbaum

The problem is that the finger that riffled through the secret material is now poised over all kinds of buttons, switches and keys. Last month, the prime minister's aides prevented the head of the IDF's plans and policy directorate, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, from accepting an invitation to meet, during a visit to Washington, with the national security adviser, General James Jones. They are afraid that the American administration does not believe Netanyahu and is looking for reliable "bypass" channels to examine the limits of Israeli flexibility. That fear is justified.

Netanyahu wants the Israeli public to believe him when he says that his performance has improved since his failure as prime minister in the 1990s, and that the present team under his leadership will be able to contain Iran. The way he and Defense Minister Ehud Barak performed in the flotilla episode makes a mockery of their pretense to proficiency and of the legend of the seriousness of the ministerial "forum of seven."

From the moment Netanyahu and Barak approved the operational plan, it was morally unacceptable for them to pass the buck sideways or downward. But that will be of no benefit to the two senior officers who were pushed to the defensive following the Mavi Marmara incident: the commander of the navy, Rear Admiral Eliezer "Chiney" Marom, and the director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin. Maybe the prospects of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant becoming the next chief of staff will improve somewhat; suddenly it's important for there to be a former commander of the Naval Commandos supervising the navy. Marom, a man of clandestine operations in remote places, should have known that strippers from a club on Allenby Street would not be in the reception line on the ship.

Yadlin, who comes from the air force and who, in contrast to the field commanders, was forgiven for his part in the failures of July 2006 in Lebanon and afterward performed with great success, in the opinion of Barak and Ashkenazi, longed to retire some time ago. Yadlin's superiors attribute to him achievements in information-gathering, research and activating units against states and organizations that appear on the traditional list of threats. But in the Mavi Marmara case, Israeli intelligence discovered, fatally late, that it had not deployed sufficiently against the new adversaries, such as the militant organizations who were behind and even onboard the ships.

No operation is conducted with perfect intelligence, but with the flotilla there was a basic intelligence gap: It was not known in advance that there was an enemy there - as distinct from an adversary - or that the ship was more of a target for a military raid than for police treatment.

Coping with 'hybrids'

The magic military word of recent years, a "hybrid" war, refers to a battle against enemies who are in part military and in part an organization engaged in subversion, terrorism and guerrilla warfare; for example, Hezbollah and Hamas. But the true hybrid situation is between such organizations and civilians. It's easier for armies and police forces to deal with an armed enemy or, alternatively, with civilian disturbances, rather than with a disturbance that is both the one and the other.

The hybridization of Hezbollah and the civilian population in southern Lebanon toppled the deployment of the South Lebanon Army and the IDF 10 years ago, and accelerated the planned withdrawal. Four months later, at Ayosh Junction in Ramallah and elsewhere in the territories, IDF forces encountered "disturbances in the presence of weapons" - snipers who attacked policemen and soldiers under cover of a mass demonstration. Faced with mortal danger, the forces responded with gunfire, caused fatalities and contributed to the escalation.

The Naval Commandos are trained to sink maritime vessels or reach a target on land from the sea. The mission of seizing maritime vessels was presented to them on the day Israel's peace treaty with Egypt was signed on the White House lawn, March 26, 1979 , which was also the first day on duty of the incoming navy commander, Ze'ev Almog. The PLO, bent on disrupting the festivities, dispatched terrorists aboard a cargo ship, the Stephanie.

An Israeli missile boat intercepted the ship 80 miles northwest of Rosh Hanikra. Almog ordered the sailors on the Stephanie to gather on the deck and remove a tarpaulin that was covering an unknown object there. It turned out to be a rubber dinghy. Almog then ordered a squad from the missile boat to board the ship. A suspicious note that the Israeli forces found in the gear of the chief mechanic led to an intensified search. Suddenly, six terrorists emerged from below, laid down their weapons and surrendered. If they had decided to fight, and had taken the opportunity to fire an RPG at the missile boat, the event would have ended in a disaster for the IDF.

The lesson that Almog, a former officer in the Naval Commandos, drew from the Stephanie incident was that in the future, such takeovers should be part of the commandos' expertise. The procedure was also changed thereafter: Suspicious ships were ordered to approach the Israeli coast, but not closer than the distance that could be covered by a Katyusha rocket that might be launched from the deck (22 kilometers at that time ). Nearly 400 merchant ships were subsequently intercepted in the 1980s, and it turned out that 23 were on missions of terrorist organizations. Seven ships were sunk while anchored in Lebanon, without one civilian fatality (in contrast to the operations of the French naval commandos, for example, who in 1985 blew up a Greenpeace ship, killing a photographer who was on the deck ).

Boarding a ship for search and questioning depends on the agreement of the captain, and must be justified by concrete suspicions. How would Israel respond if its ships were intercepted with some excuse, and what does this say about the planned participation of an Israeli missile boat in NATO's Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean, which is intended to detect terrorist activity?

The seizure of the Mavi Marmara, complicated as it was, is simpler than scenarios of hostage-taking attacks at sea - for example, rescuing hostages locked in internal compartments of hijacked ships, on which there are hundreds or thousands of passengers and crew. A case in point is the cruise ship Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985. The initiative is always with the aggressor, who can choose one of multiple targets.

In August 1984, a ship called Moonlight, which was set to sail to perpetrate a terrorist attack against Israel, was discovered in a North African port. The navy proposed sinking it while it was still at anchor, for once on the high seas it would be difficult to locate. The director of MI at the time, Ehud Barak, was one of those who were against the idea. The navy invested a large effort in searches - a combined total of 30 months of missile-boat activity - until the ship was finally sunk in April 1985.

Next to the Moonlight, another ship, the Stavirius, lay at anchor. It managed to slip out to sea, but was located and sunk in the Mediterranean. The crew that sank it, under the command of Commander Danny Halevy, pulled the eight terrorists who had been on board from the water. The results of their interrogation came as a surprise to the navy, military intelligence and the defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Their plan, they related, was to reach the coast of Tel Aviv, head straight for the Kirya - defense establishment headquarters in the center of the city - and storm the General Staff base and the Defense Ministry.

Security is too serious a matter to be left to people whose balance of achievements versus failures is so clearly tilted to the negative; amateur fingers must not be left so close to sensitive buttons. The Iranian nuclear project is worrisome, but more worrisome still is the knowledge that the person who is purporting to deal with it is Netanyahu.