What caused the intel gap that led to a possibly unnecessary Gaza war?

It begins with the problem of the intelligence gap that the security establishment had regarding Hamas’s intentions.

A Palestinian boy plays at a house that witnesses said was destroyed during Operation Protective Edge in the east of Gaza City (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian boy plays at a house that witnesses said was destroyed during Operation Protective Edge in the east of Gaza City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The idea that the 2014 Gaza war may have been unnecessary is one of the most shocking conclusions of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report.
It begins with the problem of the intelligence gap that the security establishment had regarding Hamas’s intentions. Going a step further, perhaps this intelligence gap led them and the political echelon to misjudge how far they could push before Hamas escalated to a full war.
But what led to the intelligence gap? The report does not completely clarify this issue.
Operation Protective Edge
Reading between the lines of the mass of classified intelligence documents and discussions between top intelligence and political officials, there are a few major reasons that can be gleaned.
First, there is the famous “bubble” effect or “group think.” All organizations have an accepted conventional wisdom, but in an intelligence agency, accepted conventional wisdom can take on a more dominant position because no one has any way of proving what is really happening with, or intended by, an adversary.
When everything is essentially billions of dollars worth of guess work, the smartest agents often choose the easy way: agreeing with each other.
That brings us to the second issue – the intelligence law of averages.
Again, when no one really knows what an adversary is doing or planning, the safest thing to do is choose a middle ground.
The bubble effect and law of averages were ever-present in Israeli intelligence, political calculations and decision making leading up to the 2014 Gaza war with regard to what Hamas would do.
At certain points, the most classified secret documents and debates of Israel’s top intelligence heads and political officials sound like a broken record.
As Operation Brother’s Keeper developed in June 2014, and as Hamas and other Gaza groups started to respond more aggressively, denial was in the air.
At a meeting on June 16, 2014, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon told the Security Cabinet, “Hamas remains within the understandings of Operation Pillar of Defense... will what we are doing in the West Bank [during Operations Brother’s Keeper] potentially lead to it [Hamas] initiating an escalation? According to all authorities, no.”
At the same meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, “Will the West Bank cause an escalation in Gaza?” Gantz responded that this scenario was “not of a high likelihood.” Most other security officials sounded similar notes.
On June 25, 2014, Ya’alon said Hamas “was very anxious to avoid an escalation.”
But in an internal meeting on June 26, 2014, Ya’alon voiced a heightened alert, recognizing the destabilizing economic situation in Gaza, and he later said escalation could have been avoided.
Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai and others had also warned that the economic pressure on Hamas in Gaza was “unprecedented” and could “impact the stability of the security situation.”
So at the same time as they were assuring the Security Cabinet that Hamas would not escalate, in internal settings, the IDF and the Shin Bet were warning that the summer of 2014 had a high chance of war.
The third issue is assigning responsibility. Since the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, the Shin Bet and IDF intelligence had not resolved their division of responsibilities regarding the Gaza intelligence picture. Unresolved lines of responsibility leads to things falling between the cracks.
But after all of this focus on the intelligence gap, there is another perspective on what might have been an unnecessary war.
Maybe Gantz and the IDF are right when they say there was no real gap per , just an imperfect ability to understand Hamas, despite a treasure trove of intelligence and trusting the weight of intelligence evidence about Hamas’s intentions (which were wrong) over minority trends (which were right.)
As former Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin has told The Jerusalem Post in discussions on Iran, intelligence can be useful in learning an adversary’s capabilities, but predicting an adversary’s intent in the best of situations is like attempting prophecy.
In this scenario, the bigger question becomes: Why did the defense establishment leave the Security Cabinet with an intelligence gap? Why did it fail to share its minority opinion, that some trends showed that Hamas might be on the verge of an escalation after the blow the IDF gave it during Operation Brother’s Keeper and due to its desperate economic situation? This question actually unveils some of the deepest layers and hidden dynamics within the State Comptroller’s Report.
The truth is that some part of the defense establishment’s failure to share certain intelligence information with the Security Cabinet and the National Security Council was likely not entirely unintentional.
Some in the defense establishment likely viewed the Security Cabinet and the National Security Council as unworthy, or at least problematic because of their lack of military experience.
The Security Cabinet issues are obvious.
With Netanyahu clearly wanting to avoid a ground operation and escalation at all costs, presenting too much information to Naftali Bennett, who wanted a ground operation both for ideological and tactical reasons, could have fanned the fire, and presenting too much to Yair Lapid or Tzipi Livni could have given them a boost in their attempts to unseat him or change his broader policy.
Netanyahu was the commander-in-chief, and he and Ya’alon were of one mind, with a different perspective from many of the cabinet ministers.
The other issues are less obvious.
While many have viewed the comptroller’s criticism, that the defense establishment did not play nicely with the National Security Council, as a less interesting procedural issue – but it may be far more.
The National Security Council is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the Security Cabinet, there to enlighten them with regard to potential gaps.
Why, other than institutional competition, would the IDF not respect National Security Council professionals, such as former council chief Yossi Cohen, a decadeslong Mossad official, and former deputies Avriel Bar-Yosef, a brigadier-general in the navy, and Yaakov Nagel, a brigadier-general from Unit 8200?
Incredibly, these three officials, and therefore, in essence, the National Security Council, may have been viewed by the IDF high command and Ya’alon as not “at the level” to engage with them on security and intelligence judgments.
Cohen, as a Mossadnik, may have been viewed as lacking a military tactical background, and Bar-Yosef and Nagel, neither of whom attained the rank of major-general, each spent over a decade working on technology issues after their military service – possibly contributing to their being considered to be just tech guys.
One lesson to be learned could be that at least one top National Security Council staffer should be a former major-general with operations experience, who can demand the high command’s respect.
Some in the IDF might even prefer a cabinet of professionals – run by the top echelons of the IDF, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry – instead of politicians.
Is it possible that they might even be right to prefer a Security Cabinet of experts over a cabinet of politicians? Or could changes be made to the electoral system so that cabinet officials would not politically threaten the prime minister?
There are no easy answers. But in order to understand why Israel went to war with Hamas, when neither side wanted a war, the question of the intelligence gap may go far beyond bubbles, averages and tunnels.