TEL AVIV — Israel’s government watchdog has slammed the sloppy security decisions that led to the killing of nine Turkish activists in May 2010, and warns of severe consequences if the country’s top decision-makers don’t fix their communications problems ahead of a major campaign, such as a prospective attack on Iran.
In a scathing June 13 report, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss faulted “substantive irregularities” in the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the affair, which led to a complete rupture in Israeli-Turkish strategic ties.
Specifically, he flagged Netanyahu’s failure to consult Israel’s National Security Council (NSC), as required by a 2008 law enacted in response to key lessons from Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War.
In his 153-page report Lindenstrauss repeatedly cited Netanyahu’s penchant for ad hoc, undocumented, “one-on-one” meetings with select ministers rather than “integrative, properly staffed” sessions aimed at honing government policies and practices. He also assailed an unwillingness to share critical information with relevant ministers who otherwise may have contributed to better decisions had they been fully informed of all options.
Finally, the report lamented a seeming inability to internalize Lebanon War lessons regarding the duty of political leaders to ask questions and demand clear options to plans proposed by the defense establishment.
“The Turkish flotilla incident can be seen as an allegory, from which lessons regarding the decision-making process must be learned and applied to future events ... and not just future flotillas,” the report stated.
Writing in June 14 editions of Israel’s Ha’aretz daily newspaper, veteran defense analyst Amir Oren assailed “the superficiality, complacence and carelessness that were hallmarks of Netanyahu’s approach” to the Turkish flotilla affair. There is no reason to expect a better outcome in decisions on Iran, Oren warned.
In a separate section of the report devoted to the functioning of Israel’s NSC, investigators slammed the prime minister’s office, the Defense Ministry, and military and intelligence agencies for refusal to cooperate with the coordinating body as required by law.
Not only was key information withheld from the NSC, Lindenstrauss cited numerous instances in which senior officials intentionally sought to circumvent the legally mandated body through “inappropriate channels,” ad hoc measures and refusals to invite the NSC director to important national security deliberations.
The comptroller report found that commandos were not sufficiently prepared for the resistance they encountered once the Mavi Marmara, the largest of the Gaza-bound vessels, was seized, and therefore resorted to lethal force rather than other less violent measures. Similarly, Cabinet ministers and government information officials were slow to explain events unfolding onboard the seized ship, which put them on a public relations defensive from which Israel has not yet recovered.
Under Israeli law, the NSC is entrusted with coordinating Cabinet review of and providing independent assessments on key matters of national security import, including the defense budget, multiyear modernization plans, critical security initiatives and national security strategy.
“The NSC law was supposed to significantly change ... the way government decisions are made by providing an objective balance based on a holistic view on national security subjects,” the report stated. The NSC, investigators noted, is expected to serve as the government’s institutional memory on key security issues, offering “second opinions” and providing checks and balances to offset the “huge dominance” of Israel’s defense establishment.
In practice, however, Israel’s NSC remains marginalized, excluded from required intelligence information, and ill-equipped to question strategies and plans put forth by the Defense Ministry and intelligence agencies reporting to the prime minister.
Without significant changes in the way the government makes use of the NSC, Cabinet ministers and others with oversight responsibility will remain little more than rubber stamps of Israel’s defense and intel ligence communities.
Three years after enactment of the NSC law, investigators found that the bulk of national security discussions are coordinated by the prime minister’s military secretary and not by the NSC. Moreover, they found the NSC does not prepare the prime minister prior to meetings on defense spending, nor does it author annual and multiyear national security assessments as required by law.
As for big-ticket weapons systems and other modernization projects “with huge implications on Israel’s national security,” the NSC is brought in “only in later stages of implementation,” when its ability to provide added value is eroded.
In a commentary published June 14 in Israel’s Yediot Ahronot daily, Eitan Haber, a longtime adviser to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said the Lindenstrauss report would join a slew of other reports gathering dust on government shelves.
While the state comptroller was correct in illuminating the deficiencies in the decision-making process, Haber said it wouldn’t change the fact that Israeli leaders ultimately opt for force to solve national security problems.
Netanyahu and Barak, in respective and equally terse responses to the report, noted that they would study its findings and act accordingly.