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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

IDF got off too easily in Comptroller's report on Mavi Marmara

In an article that's behind a paywall, Evelyn Gordon reports on why State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss went too easy on the IDF in his report on the Mavi Marmara incident. This is not the entire article (I got it by email).
Kudos to Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin for having the guts to speak the truth. The botched raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza in 2010, he told the Knesset State Control Committee last week, was due first and foremost to poor planning by the Israel Defense Forces.

This isn’t to say that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak don’t richly deserve the coals of fire heaped on their heads by last week’s state comptroller’s report on the flotilla. The first rule of government is “don’t believe everything your generals tell you,” and their failure to heed that rule led directly to the raid’s bloody consequences: nine naval commandos wounded and nine of their Turkish assailants killed.

Nevertheless, the most shocking failure revealed by the report was that of someone whom the media seems largely to have ignored: then-IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

According to the report, Ashkenazi repeatedly warned government officials that the commandos would be met by violence when they boarded, including at a meeting of the “Septet” of senior cabinet ministers five days before the raid. “I think it's an illusion to think that if 20 people descend onto a ship with 400 people aboard they will be met with applause,” he told that meeting. “They will fight them.”

Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor then asked the obvious question: “Do you have enough men?” To which Ashkenazi replied: “There will not be [enough men] in the beginning…gradually there will be.”

In other words, Ashkenazi predicted exactly what ultimately happened: The commandos would board the ship, be attacked, and be badly outnumbered. Such a scenario made it inevitable that some commandos would be wounded or even killed, and also that they would be forced to open fire in self-defense, since only superior weaponry could compensate for their vastly inferior numbers. Yet he still submitted this plan to the cabinet as his operational recommendation.

In short, he knowingly submitted a plan whose only possible outcome was the very disaster that in fact occurred. And despite this, he assured the Septet that everything would be okay: “I want to clarify that it isn't easy but we will do it,” he said. “Gradually there will be” enough men.

Clearly, Ashkenazi’s testimony to the Septet should have sounded warning bells to all the ministers present. By blindly accepting his plan, Netanyahu and Barak were guilty of precisely the same failure that ultimately toppled their respective predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz: During the Second Lebanon War, Olmert and Peretz blithely accepted then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz’s assurances that aerial bombardment alone would defeat Hezbollah, when in reality, it not only failed to keep the organization from launching some 4,000 rockets at Israel and killing 163 Israelis, but also did so little damage that Hezbollah has since tripled its arsenal and taken over all of Lebanon to boot. Then, too, evidence existed that should have made them suspicious of Halutz’s promises: After all, both men were MKs during the 1991 Gulf War, when six weeks of aerial bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition failed so utterly to defeat Saddam Hussein that ground forces finally had to be sent in; why should they have imagined Israel’s far smaller air force could achieve better results?

Nevertheless, the fact remains that most prime ministers aren’t experts in the nitty-gritty of military planning, and shouldn’t have to be: They should be able to rely on the people whose job this actually is – the IDF’s top brass – to present them with feasible options. Halutz’s failure to do so could have been dismissed as an aberration. But when two successive chiefs of staff present the government with such delusional plans for important operations, one can’t help suspecting that the IDF’s problems go far deeper than a single bad commander.

This, however, is precisely why Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss was right to emphasize the importance of building up the National Security Council as a counterweight to the IDF: A prime minister can’t make good decisions if he lacks options to choose among. In this case, because he was offered no other military options, Netanyahu’s choices (once diplomatic efforts had failed) boiled down to either approving the IDF’s delusional plan or letting the ships proceed unmolested, which would effectively have ended the blockade of Gaza. Had a strong NSC with the resources to devise its own operational proposals existed, Netanyahu might have had some better choices.

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