Netanyahu, Military Faulted in New Report on 2014 Gaza War

  • State comptroller faults the decision-making process
  • Says threat of Gaza attack tunnels not taken seriously enough

A Palestinian man looks out over destruction in part of Gaza City's al-Tufah neighborhood on Aug. 6, 2014.

Photographer: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

An Israeli watchdog’s report on the 2014 Gaza Strip war paints an unflattering picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wartime leadership at a time when he is weakened by suspicions of influence-peddling.

Strategy and goals were only discussed in depth after the military’s operational plans were already approved, and diplomatic alternatives to war weren’t considered, state comptroller Joseph Shapira wrote. He found the army was unprepared for the threat presented by cross-border attack tunnels from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and said Netanyahu withheld critical information from cabinet members that could have altered the course of the 50-day conflict, dubbed “Protective Edge.”

“Actions taken to deal with the threat were not aligned with the definition of a ‘strategic threat,’” Shapira said. “The response was not planned, supervised or controlled by the top-level military and political leaders.” The report was issued as tensions along the border are flaring.

Comptrollers’ findings carry moral weight but don’t dictate penalties for officials whose performance they fault. Despite its critical tone, the report on the 2014 war isn’t expected to exact a serious political toll from Netanyahu, even as he faces multiple police investigations involving suspicions of graft.

Won’t Fall

“I don’t think it will make a big difference politically. It won’t be the basis for the government to fall,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who raised the alarm about the tunnels, is the only one who may benefit from the report because “he could be portrayed as the minister who wanted more action on the tunnels, who was more concerned about taking care of this threat,” Sandler said. “But Bennett is being isolated by other parties, who are saying this is not the moment for politics.”

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In a statement released simultaneously with the report, Netanyahu congratulated the military on its “great success” during the conflict and defended his wartime conduct.

“The proof is in the unprecedented quiet that has prevailed along the Gaza border since ‘Protective Edge,’ ” the prime minister said.

The tunnel threat “was presented in detail” at 13 separate meetings of an inner forum known as the security cabinet, he said. “It was deliberated in all its gravity, while examining the full array of strategic and operational strategies.”

The comptroller rejected Netanyahu’s claims that he had raised the tunnel issue repeatedly in the security cabinet in the months leading up to the war.

Ground & Pound

Israel opened an air assault against Gaza on July 8, 2014 in response to Hamas rocket attacks and the abduction and murder of three teens by Palestinians affiliated with the militant group. It later sent in ground troops, citing the tunnel network through which militants infiltrated Israel to carry out several deadly attacks. The seven-week conflict ended with a cease-fire after more than 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis were killed.

The border has remained largely quiet since then, with occasional outbreaks of violence, including a current spate. In recent weeks, militants have fired multiple rockets at southern Israel, and Israel has responded with airstrikes and tank fire. Israel also shot down a drone from Gaza before it infiltrated Israeli airspace. Since the war, Israel has identified several new attack tunnels and is developing technology to detect them.

Portions of the report had leaked before Tuesday’s official publication, feeding the rivalry between Netanyahu and Bennett, who aspires to become prime minister. Bennett has alleged that the urgency of the tunnel threat wasn’t fully conveyed to senior ministers, and that his calls for a more robust discussion of the issue were rebuffed. The report appeared to vindicate some of Bennett’s claims.

“The threat of the Gaza tunnels, which the prime minister and defense minister designated as the most significant strategic threats, were not presented to the cabinet in detail but rather in limited and general terms that did not convey the fully grave nature to the cabinet ministers,” the report said.

Politics Before Security

Another leading politician with an eye on the prime minister’s seat, Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid, accused Netanyahu and his government of failing to fulfill their obligations to the nation’s security. Lapid served as finance minister under Netanyahu and was a member of the security cabinet during the conflict.

The report “proves beyond any doubt that the prime minister knew about the strategic threat of the tunnels, didn’t order the military to prepare an operational plan, didn’t inform the Security Cabinet and didn’t tell the public the truth,” Lapid said. “When faced with the threat of the tunnels, the prime minister and some of his ministers continued to play politics instead of dealing with national security.”

The Israeli government has a history of investigating the conduct of its wars, though critics have accused them of whitewashing actions of the military and political leaders. In some cases, the failure to anticipate threats or prosecute wars effectively has factored into the leaders’ downfall, such as with Golda Meir in the 1973 Middle East war or Ehud Olmert in the 2006 fighting with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The 2014 conflict has already been reviewed by other bodies. A government-appointed committee in 2015 concluded that military forces complied with international law throughout the conflict. A United Nations inquiry found evidence suggesting Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during the conflict. Israel denies the charge, and says the Human Rights Council that compiled the report is a hostile body that focuses disproportionately on Israel.

— With assistance by David Wainer

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