State Comptroller: Cabinet ministers were not sufficiently updated on terror tunnel threat
The State Comptroller has determined that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz failed to update Security Cabinet ministers about the threat posed by Hamas’s border-crossing terror tunnels, leaving Israel inadequately prepared to deal with this threat.
“The general statements made in Security Cabinet meetings did not reflect the severity and development of the attack-tunnel threat, as they were known to the prime minister and the defense establishment,” Yosef Shapira wrote in his report on Operation Protective Edge, which was released on Tuesday afternoon.
The comptroller’s investigation found that significant information necessary to the Security Cabinet ministers to make decisions in an optimal manner was not presented to the ministers in a satisfactory manner during the discussions that preceded Operation Protective Edge.
Such information includes intelligence regarding strategically significant hostile activity planned in the Gaza Strip against Israel, the significant gaps in intelligence at the time concerning the Gaza Strip, and the limitations of aerial attacks in the Gaza Strip.
The comptroller noted that such information was available to Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Gantz and the heads of Israel’s intelligence community—then-Military Intelligence Directorate head Aviv Kochavi and then-Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen.
According to the comptroller’s report, by the outset of Operation Protective Edge, the Security Cabinet had 33 meetings dealing with Gaza. At times, the comptroller found, defense officials failed to present ministers with significant information they needed to understand the bigger picture—even if at times this was not done with the intention to withhold this information. According to the comptroller, this created a significant gap in the ministers’ knowledge.
The comptroller further found that the tunnel threat—which Netanyahu and Ya’alon both defined as a strategic and significant threat—was not presented to the Security Cabinet in great detail, but only in a few general statements as stand-alone sentences during Security Cabinet discussions. This, Shapira noted, was not enough to make the ministers aware of the full extent and severity of the threat.
The ministers were only made aware of the severity of the threat in discussions on June 30 and in early July. During that meeting in late June, on the eve of the operation, Minister Naftali Bennett asked to see the plans to destroy the tunnels, leading Netanyahu to instruct Ya’alon to present such plans.
The comptroller asserted that Ya’alon, Gantz, then-IDF Operations Directorate chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Har-Even, and even Netanyahu should have made sure the IDF had operational plans to deal with the tunnel threat, as they “knew, in 2013 at the latest, the full severity of the tunnel threat and the possible meanings of that threat.”
Immediately after the operation, Minister Gilad Erdan said that “if a topic like the border-crossing tunnels is one we need to pay heed to, then it shouldn’t just be mentioned… the topic should be put on the agenda and be presented with all of the meanings and threats it entails to the Security Cabinet.”
Former Minister Yair Lapid supported Erdan’s statement, saying that Security Cabinet members were not aware of “the entire problem of the tunnels.”
The comptroller said the comments made by the two ministers were in line with the findings of his investigation.
Shapira reprimanded Ya’alon, Gantz, Kochavi and Har-Even for failing to provide the Security Cabinet ministers with a detailed presentation of the developing tunnel threat until early July 2014. At the very least, the comptroller said, Gantz and Kochavi should have suggested to Ya’alon that he recommend to the prime minister and the national security advisor raising the issue in the relevant Security Cabinet discussions and allocating appropriate time to these discussions.
Former National Security Advisor and current Mossad director Yossi Cohen was also reprimanded for not suggesting to Netanyahu to raise the topic in greater detail in Security Cabinet meetings at the appropriate time so the ministers could understand the meanings of the threat as early as possible.
Shapira emphasized that due to the fact that military intelligence reports were not distributed to the ministers, and due to the massive amounts of information on the topic, there is an even greater importance on the IDF suggesting to the defense minister to present these topics during discussions. This ensures that the ministers have been updated and understand the relevant information.
In a chapter dealing with the decision-making process in the Security Cabinet, the comptroller notes an exchange between Netanyahu and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman during a Security Cabinet meeting on July 8, 2014, when the ministers were asked to approve the IDF to continue its activity in Gaza.
“The defense minister and I are authorized by law to do whatever we want anyway,” Netanyahu is quoted as telling the Security Cabinet.
Later during the same meeting, Liberman inquired, “We do we even have to come out with a decision?”
“We’re not coming out of here with any decision; we’re not releasing any statements. We merely need a legal framework for the operation,” Netanyahu replied.
A week later, during a different Security Cabinet discussion on July 15, 2014, Netanyahu said: “I will ask the Security Cabinet to convene if we’re going to launch a ground operation… otherwise I don’t need to convene the Security Cabinet.”
The comptroller noted that Netanyahu’s exchange with Liberman, as well as his later statement, indicate ambiguity concerning the Security Cabinet’s role and authorities. On the one hand, the prime minister and defense minister have the legal authority to act without the Security Cabinet’s approval, while on the other hand the Security Cabinet’s decision is needed for a legal framework. This, the comptroller noted, raises the need to clarify in legislation what are the Security Cabinet’s authorities and when it must be convened.
The comptroller stressed that it is vital for government ministers, and particularly members of the Security Cabinet, to expand their knowledge on issues relating to national security, as decisions made in these issues are critical for the State of Israel. The lack of knowledge, the comptroller added, makes it harder on the ministers, with the exception of the defense minister who is constantly exposed to such information, to discuss the issues and raise relevant questions and, as a result, make informed decisions.
According to Minister Liberman, “We can come to the National Security Council and read materials ahead of Security Cabinet discussions there, but that’s not practical for a minister who is busy with his ministry’s business full time.”
Former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni noted that “When we receive summons from the National Security Council, the topic under discussion is not listed and we do not even receive an outline for the discussion.”
Minister Bennett added to this, saying that “during Security Cabinet discussions, the IDF uses unclear terms. Furthermore… the IDF doesn’t always reveal all of the relevant information necessary to make decisions in the Security Cabinet.”