(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
On Tuesday, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira published his report on Operation Protective Edge – the Gaza War of the summer of 2014. The report focuses on two key issues: decision making processes in the security cabinet before and during the operation; and the threat of tunnels dug by Hamas from Gaza into Israel.
Israel’s citizens do not need reports to recall how difficult the war with Hamas had been.
In the course of 50 days, 4,251 missiles were fired at communities across the country, in particular those adjacent to Gaza and in the Negev. Seventy-four families lost one of their members in the war and thousands of soldiers and civilians were injured. The economy suffered a great blow, especially with regards to tourism. Small businesses had to shut down and a lot of public and private property was damaged.
Added to that was, naturally, the social impact of the war: 50 days of fear, which were in direct continuation of the IDF’s Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank. Brother’s Keeper followed the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, which produced impressive solidarity among citizens, but also resulted in harsh outbreaks of hate against minorities.
Israel’s citizens, however, do need such reports to evaluate the conduct of the war and the performance of the leadership. The main person to be judged by the public is the head of the security cabinet, Prime Minister Netanyahu.
If investigations about “gifts” in the form of bottles of champagne and expensive cigars or about back-door deals with newspaper publishers are a source for concerns regarding misconduct and conflicts of interest, the operation of the security cabinet and its handling of the threat of Hamas’s tunnels are evidence of Netanyahu’s inability to meet his most fundamental responsibility toward the nation’s citizens.
The security cabinet was meant to expand the circle of decision-makers on the nation’s most fateful matters and the lives of its citizens, by including in it additional government members beyond the prime minister and the defense minister.
However, Netanyahu – as the head of the security cabinet – chose to conceal crucial information from its members and prevented them from doing their job: enriching discussions and scrutinize decision-making processes. If that was his conduct during the Gaza war, the longest and most intricate military operation in all his years as prime minister, there is reason to be concerned that this is how he is dealing with other crises and challenges too.
As the state comptroller writes, a democratic state cannot allow decisions to be made by a highly restricted number of individuals.
The security cabinet is the holiest and most sensitive part of the diplomatic and political system, the most important tool for shaping policy and the only platform in which preparations can be made ahead of conflict.
When the prime minister does not convene the cabinet for almost a year and holds its meetings while withholding essential information from its members – he renders it redundant.
The key responsibility is Netanyahu’s, but the other security cabinet members also failed to work toward setting strategic diplomatic objectives regarding the Gaza Strip (and one should ask if such a strategy exists today). In fact, the ministers – headed by Netanyahu – refused to take on their legally prescribed responsibility to present a vision for the Gaza Strip and chose instead to dump the full weight of that responsibility on the shoulders of the IDF generals. How cowardly and unfair are the ministers who still serve in it today, and rush to accuse those senior officers, instead of taking the overall responsibility for the failures.
As a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, I can attest that the army draws and implements lessons from such reports, but I anxiously view the reckless conduct of some of the cabinet members, who mainly saw it as an opportunity to add a line to their résumés.
Of course there were also mistakes and disagreements in the security cabinet I was part of as defense minister during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In the cabinet I was facing three members who were previously defense ministers and a former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). However, the work of the cabinet then was focused on diplomacy and the military campaign, as it should be. Its members were not dealing with their media campaigns, gathering “likes” on Facebook and certainly not with illegal leaks to the media.
The second part of the report deals with the Gaza tunnels. The tunnels threat manifested itself in infiltrations of Hamas militants into Israel, attacking the Israeli army, as well as in the feelings shared by kibbutz members and residents of other towns around Gaza upon hearing subterranean digging sounds. The threat isn’t new – the state comptroller had warned about an “ongoing failure in dealing with the tunnels problem” in his 2007 report on Israel’s treatment of the issue between 2001 and 2004. Israel experienced the threat again in 2006, when then-Cpl. Gilad Schalit was kidnapped by a group of terrorists who entered Israel through a tunnel.
In contrast to the state comptroller, the role of the prime minister is not only to sound alarms, but rather to translate threats into planning and implementing required actions. None of this was done since Netanyahu declared the tunnels from Gaza to be a “strategic threat” in 2013, thereby emptying the concept of “strategy” of any meaning.
Most Israelis might feel bewildered in the face of all the political mudslinging and calls for heads to roll as the contents of the report become known.
I do not subscribe to populist calls for the immediate resignation of the prime minister – neither because of his alleged criminal corruption, nor for his conduct of the Gaza war. I believe that eventually common sense will prevail and that the public will draw the necessary conclusions when it goes to the ballot box.MK Amir Peretz is a former defense minister and currently serves on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.