'PM didn’t include key officials in flotilla talks'

Decision-making process in run-up to raid on Gaza-bound boat was disorganized, unsystematic, state comptroller finds.

Palestinian flag on flotilla (photo credit: Freedom Waves/Facebook)
Palestinian flag on flotilla
(photo credit: Freedom Waves/Facebook)
In a long-awaited special report published Wednesday, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss revealed serious failures in the prime minister’s decision-making process in the run-up to the 2010 Turkish Mavi Marmara incident.
The report blasts as unsystematic and disorganized the decision-making processes at the most senior political and defense echelons prior to the IDF takeover of the flotilla on May 31, 2010.
Lindenstrauss said there had been no proper Security Cabinet discussion prior to the flotilla incident, and criticized Netanyahu for acting without systematic, coordinated and documented staff work, even though senior political and defense leaders were aware the flotilla was far more serious than previous ventures.
Six flotilla ships attempted to sail to Gaza in May 2010, intent on breaking Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled strip. Around 600 flotilla protesters were on the main ship, the Mavi Marmara, owned by the Hamas-linked Turkish Islamic group IHH.
When the IDF seized control of the flotilla vessels, it encountered severe violence from the Mavi Marmara passengers, nine of whom were killed in the ensuing clash. Nine naval commanders and 55 passengers were also injured.
The incident severely damaged Israel’s relations with Turkey and caused a wave of international condemnation of Israel’s handling of the event.
The report, the result of a comprehensive audit Lindenstrauss undertook between June 2010 and May 2011, revealed that in the run-up to the flotilla incident, Netanyahu led an “uncoordinated” decision-making process, even though senior political and defense leaders were aware the Mavi Marmara would be “exceptional” compared with previous flotillas.
The prime minister did not instruct for an integrated policy to adequately deal with the flotilla, Lindenstrauss said, but instead held separate, private meetings with the defense and foreign ministers.
Details of those meetings were not formally documented and so it was unclear what decisions had been taken, the report said.
Lindenstrauss said Netanyahu raised the flotilla issue during a May 26, 2010, informal meeting of his group of seven ministers, known as the septet.
However, the report criticizes that the septet debated the flotilla and possible naval intervention only at the very end of its session that day, and without any prior preparation by the group’s participants.
Several key ministers, including Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, whose roles include decision-making on security issues, are not septet members and were therefore not privy to that flotilla discussion, the report found.
Representatives from the various security forces and the National Security Council did not attend the septet meeting, even though they had professional expertise and knowledge on the matter, and senior military officials were also not present, including those who were to play a significant role in conducting the flotilla takeover operation.
The omission of IDF and NSC representatives from the discussion was a serious violation of the rules of staff work on security issues, and violated the 2008 NSC Law, Lindenstrauss said.
The report also concluded that the septet’s flotilla discussion had not complied with the Winograd Committee’s recommendations made after the Second Lebanon War, nor with the appropriate format for decision- making on national security issues recommended by the Lipkin- Shahak steering group, which had been tasked with implementing the Winograd recommendations.
In concluding his report, Lindenstrauss emphasized that both the Winograd and Lipkin-Shahak Committees, and his own office had given previous recommendations for political decision-making processes.
Regarding the NSC’s role, or lack of role, in the flotilla decision-making process, Lindenstrauss said that even though the senior political echelons had clearly recognized the severity of the Turkish flotilla, Netanyahu had not instructed the NSC to carry out staff work on the matter.
The NSC itself conducted a meeting on the flotilla issue only on May 12, 2010, and did not integrate dealing with the flotilla into its staff work, Lindenstrauss noted, adding that the IDF and Defense Ministry did not cooperate when the NSC requested them to do so.
Lindenstrauss noted that a senior Prime Minister’s Office official had acted under Netanyahu’s guidance to conduct extensive flotilla-related activities, which he said indicated the office’s staff were aware the flotilla was exceptional compared to past events.
“However, the actions that official took – whether they had been led by the prime minister or under his own initiative – as important as they were, were no substitute for the work of an organized staff nor for integration between the various interested parties, which the NSC should have done,” Lindenstrauss wrote.
The state comptroller noted Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s response to the draft version of the report, in which Barak stated that after the flotilla incident, his office and the NSC had agreed to place a senior defense ministry official in the NSC, and as a result, the level of coordination and cooperation between the two bodies had improved significantly.
Senior military officials also came under fire in the report.
Although both Barak and then IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi raised concerns about a possible violent response from the flotilla activists, it was believed the IDF would be able to stop the flotilla, the report said.
However, the audit revealed that the IDF did not formulate a course-ofaction (COA) regarding a possible violent response from the flotilla passengers.
As a result, no senior political officials presented or discussed a COA.
Barak had raised the issue of potential military intervention on the flotilla in various meetings, Lindenstrauss said.
However, the report found that the defense minister had neither tested nor examined the IDF’s readiness to deal with any dangerous actions by the flotilla passengers, although he discussed the possibility that the passengers might carry out such actions.
The IDF said that it welcomed the criticism and was committed to working together with the comptroller’s office to implement the findings and recommendations.
The IDF noted that immediately after the flotilla operation, it decided on its own to launch an investigative committee to probe the military’s performance ahead of and during the actual raid on the Mavi Marmara.
“Important lessons were learned and applied immediately in all of the different areas involved in the flotilla and in dealing with additional flotillas in the future,” the IDF said in its response to the report.
The IDF noted that the stateappointed Turkel Committee had ruled that the IDF operation was permitted according to international law and that the seizure of the ships was also legal. The IDF said that the preparations ahead of the flotilla were comprehensive and that senior Navy commanders were deployed on ships at sea to oversee the operation, a demonstration of how the military took it seriously.
Regarding the public relations side of the operation, the IDF noted that responsibility was put in the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office, and that in earlier meetings, it was decided that the IDF Spokesman’s Office would only be responsible for explaining the military aspects of the operation.
The IDF admitted that it delayed the release of a statement on the operation and the famous video which shows the passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara attacking the Navy commandos due to differences between the “military and political echelons” as well as the result of “unclear military procedures.”
With a nod to a separate section of the report dealing with government failures in implementing the NSC Act, Lindenstrauss said it was the prime minister’s responsibility to ensure decision-making on issues of national security is an orderly process, that includes the NSC.
Lindenstrauss noted his criticisms did not imply that better decision making would have resulted in a better outcome for the flotilla incident, but rather that implementing his recommendations and those of previous reports would improve decision-making in future national security crises.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev thanked the comptroller for his work and said “Israel’s democratic process includes institutional mechanisms for independent oversight.”
Regev reiterated that despite criticisms in the report, “the panel established by the UN secretary-general to investigate the flotilla incident clearly ruled that the maritime blockade to prevent weapons reaching the terrorists in Gaza is legitimate self-defense and that Israel’s decision to intercept the flotilla was indeed legal under international law.”
Ultimately, Regev said, “weapons that reach Hamas in Gaza end up being used against Israeli civilians.”