The Silence of the Septet

Seven hours after the navy's confrontation with the flotilla, the only voice coming out of official Israel was that of opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Where was the ministerial forum of seven?

A veteran government minister who spent several hours in the company of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday and Wednesday thought he behaved very well during the cabinet meetings.

Illustration Amos Biderman

"He was calm and didn't seem pressured, he conducted the discussions," the minister said. "But all the time one could see this expression of: 'Why the hell do I deserve this?!'"

When Netanyahu boarded a plane last Thursday, he was looking at a dream week for an Israeli prime minister: a day in Paris, at the festivities of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; a weekend in Toronto and Ottowa in the company of friends of Israel; and to top it off - a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, which was supposed to mark a turning point in their relationship.

He was set to return home Wednesday, after six ships had been stopped on the open seas and towed into the Ashdod Port.

And then what happened happened. Cabinet ministers - from the Likud, in fact - revealed in private talks this week that there would be no choice but to establish a commission of inquiry, as the United States is demanding. But from past experience we can expect Netanyahu, like his predecessors, to stall while Israel takes a beating in the international arena, and only to act once any dividends that Israel could have earned from establishing such a committee have evaporated.

In September 1997, when Netanyahu was still a novice prime minister, 12 fighters of the Shayetet naval commando unit were killed in a botched operation in Lebanon. That disaster, together with the helicopter disaster that followed it (in which 73 Israel Defense Forces soldiers on their way to Lebanon were killed when two army helicopters collided ), fueled the public move toward agreeing with the withdrawal from Lebanon and supporting the campaign of then-Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak for the premiership.

This time around, however, Barak, rather than being the leader of the opposition, is the defense minister, and owner of the moniker "Mr. Special Operations." He and the defense establishment he heads bear the primary responsibility for the raid.

The leader of the opposition this time is Tzipi Livni. On the day of the flotilla incident she was kept informed by phone by Barak and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and then stormed the foreign television stations. During the critical first seven hours, Livni was the Netanyahu of the Second Lebanon War: She skipped between studios while the government ministers were ordered by the Prime Minister's Office to maintain silence (only at 2 P.M., eight hours after the operation, did the ministers receive talking points that had been prepared in the prime minister's hotel in Canada ).

Livni's message was a sweeping defense of Israel, the soldiers, the circumstances, the incident. That day, and the following day as well, she did not express a single word of doubt. She visited the wounded naval commandos together with Kadima MKs Dr. Rachel Adatto and Israel Hasson. She chose to be statesmanlike. Domestic public sentiment was definitely in favor of the takeover operation.

On Wednesday she still expressed support for the operation, but noted that "there are questions that must be asked." At the same time, the Kadima faction submitted a proposal of no-confidence in the government that will be discussed Monday, under the heading: "The attempt by certain members of the government to flee from responsibility and to direct the arrows of criticism on the subject of the flotilla at IDF soldiers and commanders."

Kadima is gathering material and planning an integrated attack, but it won't necessarily be led by Livni.

It was difficult even for the professional slanderers to find a bad word to say about the "forum of seven" cabinet ministers who convene often, hold serious discussions, hear in-depth surveys, and even make sane decisions occasionally, with a minimum amount of leaks.

The prevailing sense was that the knowledge and the diplomatic-security experience acquired during the past decades, mainly by Netanyahu, Barak, Ya'alon, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin (the other two are Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai ) are a kind of insurance policy against catastrophe.

Three of the seven (Ya'alon, Meridor and Begin ) are ministers without portfolio. Ostensibly they have all the time in the world to keep up on various affairs.

What did Barak tell the forum?

According to one version given by Barak and his staff, on the eve of the operation the defense minister and the chief of staff reported to the septet what was about to be done and gave them the full picture, even if it was not quite the detailed operational briefing given to the troops.

Each member of the committee expressed his opinion. Nobody opposed the plan. It was approved unanimously, say the defense minister's staff members.

According to a second version, which is attributed to one or two of the seven ministers, they did not receive a serious report and there was no real discussion.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle: The ministers were given a report by Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. The defense minister wanted to spare the details, because he didn't think a military matter should be discussed outside the Defense Ministry.

Barak is known as the main obstacle to bringing issues to the larger cabinet; now it turns out that he behaved the same way regarding the septet. Ya'alon, a former chief of staff, thought that this was improper. On the eve of the campaign he turned to Netanyahu in writing and to Barak orally, with a request that next time such issues be placed, in detail, before the septet.

If the members of the forum really were informed, none of them identified the potential problems ahead of time. If they were not properly briefed, perhaps the septet, rather than being a high-quality body whose role is to advise and contribute, is a kind of alibi for Barak and Netanyahu.

President Shimon Peres, as opposed to the public, does not attribute exceptional qualities to the septet. He also knows them personally. Every time Peres was told that the prime minister was convening the forum, he would sigh and hiss: "Again they're sitting shivah" - referring to the mourning period in Jewish tradition and the Hebrew word for the number seven.

Seas and sensibility

The government of former prime minister Ehud Olmert was forced in its time to deal with two ships approaching the Gaza coast. The first was in August 2008. On the eve of the ship's arrival Olmert ordered the ministers not to give interviews on the subject. The cabinet was not convened, not even the inner forum. There were no major headlines in the spirit of "The commandos are on alert."

When it turned out that there were no weapons on board, Olmert allowed the ship into Gaza. The activists on the ship longed for a confrontation, but they were allowed to burst through an open door. The story received one or two minutes of coverage on the foreign networks.

In the end, the participants were stuck in Gaza for two whole weeks, because Israel did not allow them to leave via the Erez Crossing. Meanwhile, they made hysterical phone calls to Israel and pleaded to be allowed to leave the Gazan hell, until they were granted their wish.

The second incident was in February 2009, immediately after Operation Cast Lead. The ship that made its way to Gaza anchored first in Lebanon. It was not clear what it was carrying. Here, too, Olmert opted for total silence.

Near Israel's territorial waters several gunships and one patrol boat welcomed the vessel. The navy threw out a rope, tugged the ship into Ashdod Port, it was checked, and when it turned out that there were no weapons aboard, the equipment it carried was transferred to Gaza and the ship was sent back to where it came from.

And nothing happened: Gaza did not turn into an "Iranian port" in which "hundreds of missile-carrying ships" anchor - as Netanyahu described it on Wednesday night in his television address to the nation.

Hauser's enigma

Something terrible happened this week to cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser: He was right. Not only was Hauser right when everyone around him was wrong, the story was publicized too. Everyone knows that in the relevant discussion concerning the flotilla, Hauser was the only one who suggested that the ships be allowed to reach Gaza because - as he claimed according to a report by Barak Ravid in Haaretz at the beginning of the week - the alternative was liable to be worse.

Grumblings of dissatisfaction with the cabinet secretary have surfaced in Netanyahu's circles recently.

"We've become accustomed to cabinet secretaries who after one or two terms went to the Knesset," said someone close to Netanyahu. "This is the first cabinet secretary we've met who wants to go directly to the premiership."

Hauser, the honest, discreet and loyal official, didn't even know he was that type.