Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered the fullest public account to date of his thinking during the 2014 Gaza war during an emotionally charged session in the Knesset’s State Control Committee on Wednesday, where angry, bereaved relatives challenged him and exchanged bitter words with Likud MKs who came to his defense.
“You have turned us into enemies of the state,” Leah Goldin, the mother of slain IDF soldier Lt. Hadar Goldin, told Netanyahu during the time allotted for public questions at the meeting, which dealt with the State Comptroller’s Report on Operation Protective Edge that was released in February.
Hadar Goldin was killed on August 1, 2014, during a deadly ambush by Hamas two hours into a humanitarian cease-fire. His body and that of another soldier who died during the war, Oron Shaul, are being held by Hamas as bargaining chips for the release of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails.
To Goldin’s charge that Netanyahu was turning the bereaved parents into enemies of the state, Netanyahu – in level tones – responded, “not at all.”
When Likud MK Miki Zohar came to his defense, Goldin yelled out, “Don’t answer me, you brazen person. Shut up.” She then threw a plastic cup of water in his direction, which fell far short.
“Your demands are exaggerated,” Zohar told her.
Goldin then turned to Netanyahu once again. “For three years, we are hearing statements like, ‘We are doing the best we can,’ and ‘I, too, am a bereaved brother.’ But your brother was returned. Talk to me about your sons, or about my grandson who joined the Givati reconnaissance battalion in the footsteps of Oron Shaul.”
Afterward, Zohar – in an Army Radio interview – apologized, and said he did not intend to hurt Goldin, and wants to seek a meeting with her to apologize in person. He added that his only intent was to rebuff her claim that the government had turned the bereaved families into enemies of the state.
This, however, was not the only heated exchange during the nearly three-hour meeting.
Earlier, Ilan Sagi, whose son Erez was killed in the fighting, erupted at Zohar and Likud MK David Bitan, when they defended the premier after Sagi accused Netanyahu of not taking the tunnel threat seriously.
“Sit quietly. Where were you during the war?” Sagi shouted, as the two MKs shouted back.
Sagi and Bitan also exchanged words when Sagi accused Bitan of trying to stop his protest when he protested outside the Prime Minister’s Office last summer, calling on Netanyahu to investigate the failures of the war.
Bitan shouted at him, “Liar! I’ve never spoken to you,” to which Sagi responded that it was Bitan who was lying.
During these outbursts, Netanyahu remained silent, respecting an unwritten code of behavior whereby politicians do not get into public arguments with bereaved parents.
Michal Keidar, the widow of fallen Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar, spoke in more measured tones during the meeting, but also slammed Netanyahu, calling him the country’s “main threat.”
Netanyahu listened as she told him that it is easy to say that Hamas is a murderous organization, and that there is no one to talk to.
“It doesn’t help to always say ‘Them, them, them.’ They are not responsible for me. You are. You all are,” she said to the MKs in the room. “And you are responsible for the three children I have to raise alone.”
Besides the heated exchanges, Netanyahu responded to the report’s accusations and gave detailed explanations of various decisions.
The premier said that the 2014 Gaza war was unavoidable, and the humanitarian situation could not be improved before the war because of Hamas’s constant exploitation of foreign aid.
“We wanted to do more to help, but Hamas makes these greater humanitarian aid options impossible by exploiting them. Hamas takes 70% of that money that comes into Gaza and reinvests it into its military threat on Israel,” said Netanyahu.
He said that the war ended when “Hamas’s military begged its foreign political leadership to agree to a cease-fire and told them ‘We can’t continue any more!’” When various critical MKs demanded he prove his narrative, he said he would be willing to show documents in a closed-door hearing.
The prime minister also addressed questions about why he did not consider other policy options, and revealed his doctrine on Gaza.
There are “very few options with a murderous regime like Hamas,” he said, adding that the options were either deterrence or reconquest of Gaza.
Netanyahu explained that the “price” of reconquest would be too great in terms of IDF soldiers and Palestinian civilians who would be killed. Also, he said, “There is no one to give Gaza back to” after a reconquest operation, making it clear that permanent reconquest is not even a consideration in his mind.
As a result, he continued, the only option is deterrence by employing “awesome amounts of force” and the threat of force to get and maintain cease-fires.
He offered to hold a closed-door hearing with the committee’s classified security subcommittee, where he would describe in much greater detail exactly what operational decisions he made in real time during the war and the operational changes he has pushed for since then.
Committee chairwoman Karin Elharar appeared ready to accept the offer of a follow-up classified session, though she said some legal issues would need to be addressed.
One other strategic option he was questioned about was an idea that Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz have floated of creating a man-made island-port off of Gaza’s coast to improve its economy and facilitate greater connectivity with the world.
Netanyahu appeared to be less than enthusiastic about the idea, saying that Israel’s security and intelligence agencies had not found satisfactory solutions for it to go forward. For instance, he asked, what would happen if the islandport were taken over by Hamas? Would Israel bomb the man-made island if there were international observers or workers there, which Hamas could use as human shields? Netanyahu claimed that the current quiet in the South shows that the war was a success, and quoted IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot as saying the current period in the region is “the quietest in decades.”
Regarding criticism that the security cabinet was not fully involved in receiving information about the tunnels or in the decision-making process during the war, Netanyahu directly admitted that he had not in the past – and would not in the future – bring data and decisions to the cabinet at the level suggested by the comptroller.
He said that the comptroller and his critics recommend a level of micromanagement that simply could not work. He argued that if he opened up all daily operational and long-term Gaza decisions to the cabinet, he would need to do the same with Syria and all other border threats – a level of bureaucratic consultation that would make it impossible to function and actually make decisions.