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.
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
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
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
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,”
“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
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
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
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
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