A vote on publishing the report on the government’s handling of Operation Protective Edge was postponed Tuesday by a Knesset State Comptroller subcommittee, despite expectations that the vote would be held and publication approved.
The State Comptroller’s report is widely believed to be highly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as of former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, and was described by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett on Tuesday as a “security earthquake” that will shake up the Israeli establishment.
The subcommittee, comprised of three coalition MKs and two from the opposition, decided to delay the vote due to concerns over sensitive information and security issues, and will be holding the vote on Sunday instead.
Subcommittee chairwoman Karin Elharar said the committee was leaning in favor of releasing the report, but due to security issues it will hold another meeting before its decision. Makor Rishon reported that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) asked to delay the vote.
After leaks from the report showed confusion and disarray among cabinet members, Netanyahu defended himself Tuesday night, taking the unprecedented step of quoting from the protocols of security cabinet meetings to show that he did not ignore the tunnel threat.
Speaking to heads of municipal councils in Tel Aviv, he refuted claims that for two years prior to Operation Protective Edge, the security cabinet was not briefed about the terror tunnels penetrating into Israel.
Since so much attention over the last day has been about the protocols from the security cabinet meetings before the war, Netanyahu said he too wanted to give a “taste,” adding that there would be nothing he would say that would compromise national security.
Saying that there were discussions about the tunnels already in 2013, he quoted from a meeting on January 12, 2014, six months before Operation Protective Edge.
Netanyahu said that at that meeting he summed up the IDF’s annual intelligence assessment that was brought to the security cabinet by talking about the threat of rockets and tunnels emanating from Gaza.
“The tunnels present us with a very difficult problem,” he said, quoting directly from the protocols. “And I agree with the annual intelligence assessment: these are the four biggest threats to Israel: nuclear, rockets, cyber and tunnels.”
He also quoted from another security cabinet meeting, this one on February 16, 2014, saying, “The prime minister summed up [the meeting] and maintains that today there is a real threat from the Gaza Strip on Israel, which is only getting worse...
Tens of thousands of fighters, thousands of homemade rockets, and a wide spread defensive and terror tunnel system.”
According to this protocol, Netanyahu said that in the next confrontation with Gaza the terror organizations will fire rockets on Israeli population centers and try to carry out attacks through the tunnels on communities near Gaza.
Netanyahu said this is just the “tip of the tip of the iceberg” regarding what was discussed in the meetings. “How can one say that the [tunnel] threat in all its gravity was not presented to the security cabinet?” Earlier Tuesday, Yediot Aharonot published excerpts from transcripts of security cabinet meetings during the 2014 war in Gaza, which included tense and hostile exchanges between Ya’alon and Bennett.
The partial transcripts portray an extended and increasingly uneasy dispute between members of the cabinet over how to proceed with the war, and in particular whether to conduct a ground operation to destroy the Hamas attack tunnels.
The picture painted in the excerpts shows Bennett pushing from the outset to broaden the campaign, conduct a ground operation instead of just aerial bombing raids and destroy Hamas’s tunnel network.
Ya’alon, by contrast, urged containment and caution, arguing that a diplomatic cease-fire proposed by the Egyptians could create an extended period of quiet, and pointing out that Hamas would build new tunnels after the IDF operation.
Before Operation Protective Edge was even initiated, in the wake of the escalating tensions over the kidnap and murder of yeshiva students Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah, and Naftali Fraenkel, Ya’alon, along with then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and head of Military Intelligence Aviv Kochavi, insisted that Hamas did not want a military conflict with Israel at the time. Ya’alon said a cease-fire could obtain another three years of quiet on the Gaza front without destroying the tunnels, while Bennett said that a “strategic terrorist attack” through the tunnels could lead to a situation “100 times worse” than the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.
Eventually, a ground invasion was initiated on July 17, but tensions between Ya’alon and Bennett continued, with Ya’alon alleging that Bennett met with IDF officers and commanders behind his back.
“Don’t try and conduct the army for me, don’t come from the field and tell me to do this or that, you hear?” Ya’alon barked at Bennett, who retorted, “I will, if the truth isn’t reported.”
Bennett, along with Yesh Atid leader and then-security cabinet member Yair Lapid, has claimed that Netanyahu and Ya’alon did not keep the cabinet fully briefed and updated with information and developments from the war, a situation which Bennett was seemingly responding to in his riposte to the defense minister.
According to the transcript, Bennett demanded a more attack-minded approach from Gantz.
“I expect you to come to the cabinet with operational plans and an offense-minded spirit,” he can be heard saying. “I’m not the one who has to bring a plan for destroying the tunnels. Be galloping horses, not lazy bulls.”
Though Ya’alon and Bennett are the main rivals in the transcripts, several other ministers, including Netanyahu, also appear.
Netanyahu repeatedly is heard being unsure about escalating to a ground operation, seeming to want the blessing of the top IDF brass before he takes a stand.
Avigdor Liberman appears to be at least as enthusiastic as Bennett about a ground operation, calling multiple times for reconquering Gaza.
While Lapid has stood with Bennett in slamming Netanyahu for failing to prepare the cabinet for the tunnel threat, he departed from Bennett on the question of a ground invasion, categorically opposing it, along with Tzipi Livni.
On the tunnel issue, at one point Netanyahu responds to a question about a plan to attack tunnels that Ya’alon mentions, saying he is unfamiliar with the plan.
Also, on Tuesday Channel 2 reported that the comptroller report directs criticism at Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, who at the time was head of the National Security Council, for failing to be proactive on a range of issues addressed in the report.
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.