In a long-awaited special report published Wednesday, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss criticized the way both the prime minister and defense minister made decisions in the run-up to the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident.
The report sharply criticizes as 'unsystematic' the decision-making processes at the most senior political levels, particularly by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in the weeks and days immediately preceding the flotilla's arrival in Israeli waters.
Six flotilla ships attempted to sail to Gaza in May 2010, aiming to break Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled strip. Around 600 flotilla protesters sailed on the main vessel, the MV Mavi Marmara, owned by the Hamas-linked Turkish Islamic group IHH.
The IDF seized control of the flotilla vessels on May 31, 2010, but encountered severe violence from the Mavi Marmara passengers, nine of whom were killed in the ensuing clash. Nine naval commanders and 55 passengers were also injured.
The incident severely damaged Israel's relations with Turkey and caused a wave of international condemnation of Israel's handling of the event.
The report includes a special chapter on failures in public diplomacy and public relations both before, during and immediately after the flotilla incident, which caused considerable damage to Israel's international image.
A separate chapter about alleged intelligence failures preceding the arrival of the flotilla has been distributed separately, but is classified.
Lindenstrauss said the decision-making process led by Netanyahu in the run-up to the flotilla incident was uncoordinated and mostly undocumented - despite the fact that senior political and defense leaders had recognized early on in 2010 that the Mavi Marmara would be "exceptional" compared with previous flotillas.
In the run-up to the flotilla, the prime minister did not instruct for an integrated policy to adequately deal with the protest ships, Lindenstrauss said, but instead held individual meetings with both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Details of the prime minister's meetings with Barak and Lieberman were not documented and so it was unclear what decisions had been taken, the report said.
The state comptroller also criticized Netanyahu for waiting until May 26, 2010 before meeting with relevant ministers to review strategy and policies regarding the flotilla, and to develop a coordinated attempt to prevent the flotilla from sailing, as well as preparing for possible naval intervention.
Lindenstrauss said Netanyahu raised the flotilla issue in a May 26, 2010 informal meeting of his group of seven ministers, known as the septet.
However, the report criticizes that the forum debated the flotilla and possible naval intervention only at the very end of its session that day, and without any prior preparation by the group's participants.
Several key ministers, including Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and the Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich, whose roles include decision-making on security issues, are not septet members and were therefore not privy to that flotilla discussion, the report pointed out.
Military officials were also not present at the septet meeting, the audit found - including those who were to play a significant role in conducting the flotilla takeover operation.
Also absent from the Septenary's flotilla discussion were representatives from the various security forces and the National Security Council, even though they had professional expertise and knowledge on the matter.
Regarding the NSC's role, or lack thereof, in the flotilla decision-making process, Lindenstrauss said that even though the senior political echelons had clearly recognized the severity of the Turkish flotilla, Netanyahu had not instructed the NSC to carry out staff work on the matter.
The NSC itself conducted a meeting on the flotilla issue only on May 12, 2010, and did not integrate dealing with the flotilla into its staff work, Lindenstrauss noted, adding that the IDF and Defense Ministry did not cooperate when the NSC requested them to do so.
Senior military officials also came under fire in the report.
Although both Barak and then IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi raised concerns about a possible violent response from the flotilla activists, it was believed the IDF would be able to stop the flotilla, the report said.
However, the audit revealed the IDF did not formulate a course-of-action (COA) regarding a possible violent response from the flotilla passengers. As a result, no COA was presented to or discussed by senior political echelons.
Barak had raised the issue of potential military intervention on the flotilla in various meetings, Lindenstrauss said.
However, the report revealed that the defense minister had neither tested or examined the IDF's readiness to deal with any dangerous actions by the flotilla passengers, although he discussed the possibility that the passengers might carry out such actions.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev thanked the
comptroller for his work and said "Israel's democratic process includes
institutional mechanisms for independent oversight."
Regev reiterated that despite criticisms in the report of the decision
making process, "the panel established by the UN Secretary General to
investigate the flotilla incident clearly ruled that the maritime
blockade to prevent weapons reaching the terrorists in Gaza is
legitimate self defense and that Israel's decision to intercept the
flotilla was indeed legal under international law."
Ultimately, Regev said, "weapons that reach Hamas in Gaza end up being used against Israeli civilians."
The IDF said that it welcomed the criticism and was committed to working together with the comptroller's office to implement the findings and recommendations.
The IDF noted that immediately after the flotilla operation, it decided on its own to launch an investigative committee to probe the military's performance ahead of and during the actual raid on the Mavi Marmara.
"Important lessons were learned and applied immediately in all of the different areas involved in the flotilla and in dealing with additional flotillas in the future," the IDF said in its response to the report.
The IDF noted that the state-appointed Turkel Committee had ruled that the IDF operation was permitted according to international law and that the seizure of the ships was also legal. The IDF said that the preparations ahead of the flotilla were comprehensive and that senior Navy commanders were deployed on ships at sea to oversee the operation, a demonstration of how the military took it seriously.
Regarding the public relations side of the operation, the IDF noted that responsibility was put in the hands of the Prime Minister's Office and that in earlier meetings, it was decided that the IDF Spokesman's Office would only be responsible for explaining the military aspects of the operation.
The IDF admitted that it delayed the release of a statement on the operation and the famous video which shows the passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara attacking the Navy commandos due to differences between the "military and political echelons" as well as the result of "unclear military procedures."
Barak released a short statement saying that he will work to ensure that the IDF and the general defense establishment implement the necessary recommendations from the report. "This is what needs to be done and this is what I will do," Barak said.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report