Turkel Commission: Er, where does the buck stop?

PM and Barak showed they're not Harry Truman.

By
August 13, 2010 16:25
The Turkel Committee

Turkel Committee. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Chief of General Lt.-Gen.

Gabi Ashkenazi testified before the Turkel Commission investigating the Gaza flotilla incident this week, they were addressing two distinctly different audiences.

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The first, and most apparent, was the seven-man panel, including two foreign observers, chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. This panel will write up a report on the incident that, while it may not have the same teeth as a full blown state commission of inquiry, will go a long way toward determining – at least in this country – how the event will be understood and remembered.

The second audience was the proverbial court of public opinion. Netanyahu and Barak said one thing to the panel, and then – through spokesmen – something else to the public.

To the panel, each in his own way, Barak and Netanyahu rolled on to someone else responsibility for the botched raid that left nine Turks dead, Israeli-Turkish relations in a shambles, and Israel even further isolated and censured in the world than before. A political cartoon in Wednesday’s Yediot Ahronoth captured the mood in the hearings perfectly. It showed Ashkenazi, like one of the commandos who raided the Turkish- flagged Mavi Marmara ship, rappelling down a ladder onto a boat, where Barak was waiting to bludgeon him with an iron rod, and behind him stood Netanyahu with a club at the ready, after just having bopped Barak on the head.

At the hearing Netanyahu, sounding like the antithesis to US President Harry Truman who famously had a sign on his desk reading “the buck stops here,” told the committee that before he left for a visit to North America in May, he placed Defense Minister Ehud Barak in charge of the flotilla matter “in all its aspects.” In other words, “don’t blame me, I delegated authority to Barak.” It was Netanyahu in the role of the anti-Truman.

Barak, testifying the next day, said he accepted responsibility, but then added enough “buts” to make it clear that he was casting responsibility onto the army. It’s up to the army, he said, to warn the government if the mission cannot be carried out.

THE PHRASE “I erred,” or “I made a mistake” was missing from either man’s testimony. When the tenor of both Netanyahu and Barak’s comments were reported, both realized that while it may have been wise inside a courtroom-like setting not to admit mistakes or culpability, outside – in the court of public opinion – this was not going to fly. And so they both quickly re-calibrated their message, and had their spokesmen stress that they were, indeed, taking ultimate responsibility.

Netanyahu issued a statement immediately after his appearance before the panel saying that his words were misconstrued, and that “as prime minister the overall responsibility always falls on me, whether I am in the country or abroad, and that was the case in this instance as well.”

He said as much as well to journalists he happened upon in the Knesset shortly thereafter. But these remarks were said outside the Yitzhak Rabin Guest House in Jerusalem where the committee hearings were taking place. These words were not for the official protocol, but for public consumption.

Barak’s words to the committee, too, were immediately represented in the media as an attempt to shove responsibility for the incident onto Ashkenazi and the army. He too moved quickly to contain the image damage, trotting out his spokesman to various media outlets to stress that he accepted responsibility.

The only witness who said the same thing to both audiences – the panel and the public – was Ashkenazi.

Actually, Ashkenazi only addressed the panel, not feeling the need to re-calibrate his message for the public.

The reason was simple: once he accepted responsibility without adding numerous qualifiers, once he actually admitted errors, he had no need to then go and explain himself to the public – the public understood.

“The central mistake, including mine, was that we thought there were about 10-15 people on the ship; we will throw flash grenades, they will move away, and then we will be able to drop 15 soldiers in one minute,” Ashkenazi testified.

“Here was the real error. We should have managed conditions to accumulate power in the quickest way.

There was a need to fire with accurate weapons and neutralize those who prevented the rappelling down of soldiers, something that would have decreased the risk of harm to them. That is the central lesson for the next operation.”

There was something extremely ironic about Ashkenazi being the only one of the three leaders to stand up and forthrightly say he committed an error. As one observer said this week, Ashkenazi emerged from this week’s saga as the “gever gever,” the man’s man.

The irony is that Ashkenazi came out the “gever, gever” in the same week in which the so-called Galant document – an alleged public relations plan to promote OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant in the race to succeed Ashkenazi – was exposed and included a plan to cast Ashkenazi in the role of a whiny complainer, very much in the mold of former Likud politician David Levy.

But in front of the Turkel committee, not only was Ashkenazi no whiner or complainer, nor the disgruntled Levy-type official that those behind the Galant document hoped to portray him as, but he was in fact the one who – judging by the comments and reactions in the media – came out of the proceedings looking the best. It is not clear how the panel itself will judge him, but the public, it seems, has judged his testimony favorably.

And the public judgment in cases like these is not insignificant. In fact, as historic precedent shows, it can be decisive. BACK IN 1973, immediately after the disastrous Yom Kippur War, the Agranat Commission sat to investigate the failures of that War. Obviously there is a universe of difference between the Yom Kippur war and flotilla incident, but still, it is instructive to remember what happened with Agranat.

After 90 direct testimonies and 188 written ones, the committee released an intermediate report on April 1, 1974 that found the political echelon not culpable for the disaster, but rather placed the blame onto the IDF, particularly then chief of staff David Elazar, and the heads of military intelligence. The commission did not find flaws in defense minister Moshe Dayan’s conduct, and even commended then prime minster Golda Meir. In other words, it largely exonerated the politicians, and blamed the army. But this outraged the public, which took to the streets. Less then two weeks later Meir tendered the government’s resignation.

The lessons from that historic episode should not be lost on Barak and Netanyahu and their advisers. There is something in the Israeli psyche that rebels against attempts to blame the army – perhaps because so many identify with the army because it is still, to a large degree, a people’s army. As such, there is resistance to seeing politicians try saving themselves by casting the blame on the IDF – for what is the IDF if not you, me, the kids, the neighbors, and the neighbor’s kids.

The political significance of this week is clear.

Netanyahu and Barak’s public standing took some blows, while Ashkenazi’s public persona was strengthened.

By appearing to be shunting responsibility on to others, Netanyahu and Barak gave their political rivals yet another weapon with which to club them. Is the club fatal? Probably not, but the blows could have an accumulative effect down the road.

And as for Ashkenazi, the curse that some were trying to cast upon him this week was – Bilam like – turned into a blessing, and his stock in the public eye, already high, rose even higher. That’s important, because when Ashkenazi does indeed step down in February, he – like so many of his predecessors – will likely have his eye on politics, even if he will have to endure a three year “cooling down period,” as the law dictates.

But when those three years are up, and the time comes for him to throw his hat in the ring, it’s a safe bet that Ashkenazi’s owning up to responsibility for the flotilla incident will, paradoxically, serve him well.


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