With a Wave of Netanyahu's Dismissive Hand

As before the 2014 Gaza war, officials know there’s no follow-up after the 'guidance' the prime minister gives, so nothing ever happens. Hopefully reports by the state comptroller will make him more effective.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (R) and then-IDF chief Benny Gantz during Operation Protective Edge ,July 30, 2014.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories raised a red flag for the political leaders: a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, an explosion waiting to happen. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a written instruction to hold a special session of the security cabinet on the matter. But the meeting wasn’t held. “Priorities have changed,” the prime minister’s people explained.

The head of the Shin Bet security service raised a red flag of his own: We have intelligence on a serious Hamas terrorist attack. So Netanyahu ordered “the security cabinet to be updated today.”

But the security cabinet wasn’t updated. “I decided it was important, I can decide it’s less important,” Netanyahu explained.

In the end, the members of the security cabinet made decisions that led to a conflict they didn’t want, without knowing there was a risk that their decisions would make Hamas accelerate its preparations for the terrorist attack.

The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet came and warned about the tunnels. Netanyahu took the issue to heart. “We will treat it as a strategic threat, as a strategic surprise on all fronts,” he told then-IDF chief Benny Gantz. And what did he do about it? Nothing. No attempt to find a solution.

After the tension started that led to the 2014 Gaza war, Netanyahu instructed the military at a meeting of the security cabinet to bring him “by tomorrow” a plan to destroy the tunnels. Netanyahu knew that the threat existed for over a decade, so did he consider it logical that within 24 hours an effective solution could be found? And the next day, a surprise. The IDF didn’t bring a solution. Did Netanyahu blow a fuse? Of course not.

Ten days later the conflict was underway and Netanyahu thought that maybe now the army would bring such a plan to the security cabinet. The plan included airstrikes, but Gantz and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon knew it wouldn’t help. Netanyahu asked the two if it would do any harm.

That was a good question  which Gantz evaded and Ya’alon didn’t answer. In other words, the defense minister didn’t bother to answer the prime minister on a critical question: Does the operational plan do any good or does it just make things worse?

Netanyahu went on with the agenda, or maybe didn’t notice, or maybe felt he had fulfilled his responsibility when he asked the right question. Either way, the wrong decision was made with the support of people who knew it was wrong, and the decision caused the expected damage.

The trend now is to say that after-the-fact inquiries into military operations are the real damage. Nonsense. What causes damage is the prime minister managing critical security matters as if he were an outside consultant to the government. He “directs,” “instructs,” “decides” and then nothing happens. People in the system know there’s no follow-up after the “guidance” he gives, so nothing ever happens.

Actually, in the report on the Gaza war, the comptroller leaves out one small but important detail. When a strategic discussion was held on Gaza six months after Netanyahu “instructed” that one take place, a representative of the National Security Council came to the meeting. She told the security cabinet that she was only presenting alternatives, and there were other alternatives such as trying to reach an agreement with Hamas.

But she immediately ruled out this option. All this was written in the report. What wasn’t written was that between the hesitant mentioning of the diplomatic alternative and its quashing came a wave of the hand by Netanyahu that dismissed the idea. That gesture put the wayward official immediately back on track.

If so, why are comptroller reports necessary? Because as a result of the Winograd Commission’s report on the Second Lebanon War, a representative of the National Security Council earned the right to mention, however hesitantly, a diplomatic option in the supreme decision-making forum.

The latest comptroller’s report is essential so that next time the prime minister will agree to hear options he doesn’t like. If he’s not really paying attention, at least he might be fearing a commission of inquiry. And maybe, just maybe, if the security cabinet listens, it will make better decisions.