What the Gaza Flotilla Probe Reveals About Netanyahu, Barak, and Ashkenazi

Details of testimonies offered to Turkel panel were similar, but the differences in approach revealed an embroiled, divisive leadership that evades responsibility.

The Turkel Committee investigation of the Gaza flotilla operation gave Israelis a rare opportunity to see the leaders of their country and its armed forces live before the cameras and microphones this week.

The prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff came to the hall in Jerusalem where the panel is holding its public sessions, answered questions and spoke for hours. The transcripts, which were published in real time - as opposed to those of the Winograd Committee, which investigated the Second Lebanon War - present the decision-makers as they are.

Israel’s troika
Emil Salman

What did we learn? That Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are very like their characters on the TV satire show "A Wonderful Country." The prime minister is superficial, interested mainly in image and uptight about what's said about him. That's why he was quick to "clarify the testimony" after he saw critical headlines online.

The defense minister likes to mention his time in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit ("I spent most of my years in operational activity" ), is contemptuous of civilian life and wants to show people that he understands both general strategy and details.

The chief of staff feels comfortable in the role of company commander with a knife between his teeth, and speaks in a gravelly army slang that lends him credibility (with expressions like, "from my point of view," "risk management," "the genetic code of the IDF" ).

One of the senior figures complained that the order of the testimonies would affect the public's reaction: Indeed, Netanyahu and Barak came across as evading responsibility and blaming their subordinates, whereas Ashkenazi came off as a man's man. If the order had been reversed - the chief of staff first, followed by the defense minister and the prime minister - perhaps they all would have looked responsible and serious.

The disparities between the accounts are not great. All three justified the maritime blockade of Gaza as a security necessity, intended to prevent arms smuggling. They said that the decision-making before the interception of the Turkish flotilla was reasonable and that the hitches were operational in nature, and they made an effort to defend the concept of army investigations and also to afford the soldiers and commanders immunity from criminal responsibility.

The stories they told were also identical: When they learned this spring about a large flotilla being organized in Turkey to break the Gaza blockade, Israel tried to delay it by diplomatic means and by secret intelligence activity, and succeeded in reducing it from a dozen ships to six. The decision-makers decided to use force to stop the ships that set out before dawn on May 31. The intelligence was faulty, the method of operation was not appropriate to the circumstances, and the soldiers found themselves in an inferior position, fighting on the deck of the Mavi Marmara against an unruly, violent, armed mob. Nine Turkish passengers were killed and Israel was roundly criticized internationally, but this will not drive it to change its policy toward what is called "Hamastan" in the Gaza Strip, beyond symbolically relaxing the restrictions on which goods may enter Gaza via the land border crossings.

Different approaches

The details in all three testimonies were similar, but the differences of style and approach revealed an embroiled leadership that evades responsibility. Ashkenazi, who enjoyed an intelligence advantage over his superiors, read their testimonies before testifying himself. His willingness to admit "I made a mistake" gave him a tremendous advantage over Barak and Netanyahu, who acknowledged only the mistakes of others. Ashkenazi turned out to be far more media-savvy than the prime minister and the defense minister, even though they're both far more experienced in public life.

Netanyahu and Barak put forward a similar worldview: Israel is an island, the front line in defending Western democracy in its confrontation against "Muslim radical terrorism," an open, liberal country with a free press and an independent judiciary surrounded by "nothing but terror and tyranny."

To survive in this environment you have to be strong, but that's not enough. It's equally important to enjoy international legitimacy. The prime minister appealed to "the decent and honest people around the world"; the defense minister asked for the support of "honest people in the free world."

It's comforting to know there are saints like this in the world. But Israel's problem is that the world doesn't buy its story: Israel insists there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that the Gazans are doing fine and their markets are thriving, but the international community doesn't believe it. Netanyahu distinguishes between "substantiality" - i.e., reality as it is - and the "political and media substantiality" in which the confrontation with the Palestinians takes place, in the view of Western leaders and media consumers.

The situation assessment is identical, but Netanyahu and Barak draw different conclusions from it. The prime minister is concerned mainly about the political-media angle, and this is what motivates his decisions. From his point of view, Israel's Gaza policy has three goals. The first is to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit, "a matter that touches the hearts of all of us." Next is an immediate response to the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, and third is the prevention of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

For Barak, the top goal is "to isolate and weaken Hamas vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority." That does not interest Netanyahu. Barak's next goal is to reduce and prevent rocket fire from Gaza. Shalit comes last. That explains why Netanyahu is more popular than Barak: The prime minister thinks first of all about what preoccupies his voters.

The inversed order of priorities leads to different solutions. Netanyahu is engaged in the micro-tactics of "national hasbara" (diplomatic PR ). He doesn't remember the operational details discussed by the ministerial forum of seven on May 26, when the operation to intercept the flotilla was authorized. For him, the discussion was about "coordinated deployment in terms of media, publicity and diplomacy." He recalled his instructions "to reduce the hasbara damage through various means," such as by embedding foreign correspondents on the navy vessels.

The defense minister is far less interested in such activity. He recalled a serious discussion in the forum of seven, "in which the alternatives were raised explicitly and graphically." But he, too, recalled that the discussion was superficial: "A concise intelligence survey and a short operational description by the chief of staff."

According to Barak, the solution to Israel's political distress lies in working toward peace agreements with the Palestinians, Syria and "Inshallah, with Lebanon, too" - and not in improving the angles from which soldiers are filmed. That's Barak for you: He likes the big strategic moves and stumbles over the small stuff.

Barak's favorites in the forum of seven are Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, and not by chance: They were the first to defend him in the media (along with former Labor MK Ori Orr ) against allegations that he had abandoned the wounded in the second training disaster at Tze'elim base. Now Barak lauds Meridor and Begin for expressing reservations and asking the right questions about the risks involved in stopping the flotilla. It's a puzzling story: What's the point of such questions if no one turns them into operative answers and lessons?

The testimonies before the Turkel panel show that people don't change, that they remember only what interests them, and that it's hard for them to escape their background and experience. There is no "new Bibi" and no "different Barak." Only the third witness, Ashkenazi, prepared well and demonstrated an impressive command of operational and media detail, along with receptiveness to technological developments: He was the only one who inserted a video into his monologue, showing familiarity with the Internet, YouTube and the blogosphere.

Against the backdrop of his prolonged media silence as chief of staff, his testimony was the most fascinating of all. But Ashkenazi, too, clung to the same mindset as his superiors. In Israel 2010, that's how it is.