Why Netanyahu the Ostrich Is Losing Sleep Over the Tunnels He Almost Didn't Destroy

Though fully aware of tunnels stretching from Gaza into Israel, Netanyahu buried his head in the sand and tried to finish Operation Protective Edge before it began - a policy that is now the target of the comptroller's criticism.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a special cabinet meeting to mark Jerusalem Day in Ein Lavan, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Thursday, June 2, 2016.
Abir Sultan, AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not the only one trying to get the Labor Party into the government — newly minted minister Tzachi Hanegbi is as well. The truth is that this isn’t particularly surprising; Hanegbi is very strongly allied with Netanyahu, and he has also cultivated a reputation of being moderate and thoughtful, leaning toward the center-right and supporting the two-state solution.

Last week he was appointed a minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office, even though he had ceremoniously announced that he would not agree to take a pseudo-job. He has been making headlines after it emerged that he had written a document absolving Netanyahu for failures stemming from the Hamas attack tunnels in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

The document, which was essentially a short letter, was written for some reason to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, but found its way to the media. Hanegbi sent it on the last day of his tenure as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, just before the prime minister announced his ministerial appointment. This letter is very important to Netanyahu, who is preparing to fight a huge battle against State Comptroller Joseph Shapira for the harsh report on Operation Protective Edge that Shapira is expected to publish shortly. The comptroller’s report is very critical of Netanyahu’s failure to properly handle the terror tunnels dug into Israeli territory from Gaza, and thus Hanegbi’s letter looks very much like a payback for being named a minister.

The tunnels issue has been causing Netanyahu to lose sleep. One can learn this from his extreme and unprecedented response to the draft version of the report that he and others involved have received. Netanyahu said that Shapira’s report “smells political” and that it was “a report that isn’t serious by a comptroller who isn’t serious.”

The tunnels issue has another angle that’s no less sharp — that of Naftali Bennett, who claims that Netanyahu kept the security cabinet in the dark about the nature of the tunnel threat. From the first day of the operation, Bennett demanded a change of approach that would deal with the tunnels, but Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon refused.

Indeed, the first nine days of Operation Protective Edge were devoted to aerial bombardments aimed at stopping rocket launches at Israel. The tunnel issue was not discussed by the security cabinet at all. Moreover, on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, Netanyahu boasted to the cabinet that he had succeeded in reaching a cease-fire with Hamas brokered by Egypt. That cease-fire was meant to go into effect two days later, on July 17, at 10 A.M. and would have ended the operation without any action taken against the tunnels. Netanyahu just wanted to go home in peace, without dealing with that strategic time bomb, which he and the army were very familiar with. After all, Gilad Shalit was snatched via one such tunnel.

But then, like in a well-written play, there was a sharp plot twist. On that same Thursday, just before dawn, 13 terrorists infiltrated Israeli territory through a tunnel whose exit was only 200 meters from the fence around Kibbutz Sufa. It was a harsh blow to Netanyahu’s ostrich-like policy, and the incident left no choice but to change direction, send ground troops into Gaza and use full force against the attack tunnels.

One is left to imagine what would have happened if Hamas had been smarter and a bit more patient. What if it hadn’t sent those 13 operatives in, but instead had observed the cease-fire and continued to quietly dig 32 more tunnels, and then, when the tunnels had reached the heart of the Gaza border communities, had sent a few groups of terrorists in all at once, without warning. It would have been a disaster on a grand scale.

That’s why Netanyahu’s head-in-the-sand policy was so grave. It was the conduct of someone who thinks only of the moment, without looking beyond his nose. What’s important is to postpone difficult decisions. That’s why Netanyahu is so spooked by the comptroller’s report. That’s also why Hanegbi’s letter was so important.