IDF May Have Botched Marmara, But Israeli Leadership Is to Blame

Two years after the Marmara flotilla raid, Israel's State Comptroller released a severe report blaming a poor decisionmaking process and hurried discussions at the political level. Ofer Shelah’s review of the report concludes that nothing has changed in the way crucial decisions are made in Israel since the Second Lebanon War.

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political level, decision-making process, lebanon war 2, state comptroller, report, lebanon, israel, gaza flotilla raid, gaza

Jun 18, 2012

There are numerous parallels between the Marmara incident and the Second Lebanon War: After both events, nothing changed in the government’s flawed decision-making process.

The dual State Comptroller's report published on Thursday, June 14 on the Marmara affair and the bleak status of the National Security Council (NSC) is an impressive document, a next-to-last farewell gift to the country’s decisionmakers from State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and reserve Major General Ya'akov Mendy Or, chief of security in the comptroller's office.

The final parting gift, the report on the Harpaz affair, will arrive all wrapped up in a shiny cover of sensationalist headlines. But the flotilla/NSC report is much more important for many reasons. It shows us the extent to which nothing has changed in the one-sided method in which Israel’s leaders make security-related decisions. If anything, things have gotten even worse since the Second Lebanon War.

Yes, there are numerous parallels between the flotilla fiasco and the Second Lebanon War. And when differences do emerge, they are all to the detriment of the current leadership because our leaders should have learned the lessons of the past, including the negative example of Lebanon, the Winograd Commission report, the practical recommendations of the Shahak Committee and the National Security Council  Law (of 2008) — all these were available.

Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz (prime minister and defense minister, respectively, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006) were newbies and lacked experience in their positions, while today, both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert have much more experience under their belts. The Hezbollah assault on July 12, 2006 took us by surprise; by contrast, the flotilla was a local incident and known in advance. All this created a far better starting position for Netanyahu and Barak than their predecessors had experienced. Nonetheless, the latter personages failed miserably, more than Olmert and Peretz did in 2006, while managing to repeat the same mistakes, one after another.

The facts uncovered by the comptroller are unequivocal: Despite what was written in all the reports and even legislated in the National Security Council  Law, the only entity that discussed and dealt with the flotilla was the IDF. And the very nature of a military entity is to perceive the flotilla as merely an operational problem — how to stop a boat.

The IDF did not understand, and no one in the higher echelons explained to them, that the flotilla was something else altogether: a demonstration with the potential for harm. That harm would not constitute breaking the blockade on Gaza, but to embarrass Israel, damage its relations with Turkey and ruin its image in the world. And since it was the army that took action, while the diplomatic echelons mainly evaded responsibility, the efforts of the demonstrators to blacken Israel’s face were achieved.

Between a real warning and protecting one's self  

The little that the comptroller reveals from the minutes taken at the meetings is eye opening. In Israel, only the army knows and only the army decides, but even its commanders are mainly busy preparing their future alibis. The chief of staff  is the "serial warner," even taking pains to secure his position for a future investigation in a meaningless letter of warning. The defense minister is the Joker, as is customary in Israel from time immemorial and certainly à la Ehud Barak: Instead of precise instructions, he provides empty warning statements.

Empty words filled the air. Ashkenazi did say clearly that “carrying out the mission as defined to the IDF will, in the planned mode of action, create a clash with the foreigners in the flotilla and create a provocation. The [foreigners’ ultimate] purpose is to attract public opinion and inflame criticism against the State of Israel — criticism that already exists.” In other words, he understood the potential for damage in the plan, but left it intact.

Barak said that “there should be another discussion with the prime minister. Maybe … the internal security minister, the prime minister, the foreign minister. Maybe someone else, too,” but did not take action to assemble such a forum. In the only discussion that did take place — when the flotilla was already on its way and there was no alternative option — Barak hurried to deal with PR, in order to make it clear in advance who will be held guilty in the event of failure.

And Netanyahu? He didn’t see any reason to intervene. They told him it’s not important that he should know, so he didn’t know. He did not convene a single comprehensive discussion to deal with a problem that was multi-disciplinary by its very nature — until everything was locked and signed.

Wishful-thinking decisionmaking

Thus the person who determined the policy of the State of Israel was none other than some planning officer in the navy, probably no higher in rank than a colonel. He had the operational hammer in his hand, so the problem appeared to him to be the nail. His plan, with the brilliant idea of lowering solitary soldiers by rope into the midst of a violent demonstration, was the only plan on the table. And that plan was approved unanimously within the army.

Afterward, the plan was not even brought to the cabinet, but was approved (without its operational details) in the Forum of Seven (the Israeli inner cabinet), which is only an entity for consulting purposes. But even in this upper-echelon civil forum, the discussion was conducted as it would be in the army: Each person expressed his wishful thinking, then the only plan on the table was rubber-stamped.

The cabinet, which is required by law to convene once every two weeks and is legally the forum where security-related decisions must be made, did not convene at all in the two months before the flotilla. Netanyahu’s attitude to the cabinet was like the attitude of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to the General Staff during the Second Lebanon War: Halutz did not convene his General Staff in its full forum even once during the war, because he “didn't think it right to engage in honorifics,” as he wrote in his book.

Reason for worry?

And the National Security Council? Netanyahu told the comptroller that it doesn’t deal with "operations" — as if the flotilla really were only that. But to this very day, he still hasn’t gotten the point. As indicated in the National Security Council Report, the NSC does not carry out its legal function even with regard to issues that are not "operational." For example, this forum was never involved in a discussion over the IDF’s future fighter jet, a decision involving tens of billions of shekels. Instead, this decision was taken in a short, accelerated process — less time than the average person invests in buying a used car.

And the last point: Olmert claimed, rightfully, that his conduct in the issue that everyone knows about but that cannot be named in the years after Lebanon shows that he fully understood and implemented the lessons of the war.

Netanyahu and his people tell us that we can rest easy because the really big, important issues — and everyone knows what they are, including classified information on which 57 discussions were held in the Forum of Seven, during the comptroller’s inspection period (as in, Iran’s nuclearization) — well, these important issues are conducted completely differently.

Read the comptroller’s report carefully — all the details. If the report calms your nerves, if it satisfies you that this flotilla incident was only small change but that the really important issues were handled all right, then evidently you know more than the comptroller and the others in the room (Dagan, Diskin and Ashkenazi).

The comptroller says in his report that the flotilla is an allegory. If so, then the moral is too grave to even consider.

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