Decisions by government leaders in the run up to the 2014 Gaza war and during the military campaign became a political lightning rod during a Knesset meeting Wednesday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fought back against criticism over his management of the war amid shouting matches between lawmakers and emotional pleas from bereaved families.
In the emotionally fraught meeting, Netanyahu pushed back against criticism contained in a state auditor report on the 2014 Gaza war, saying he had done everything possible to keep the conflict contained, and punished Gazan terror group Hamas for fighting Israel.
“We didn’t want a war in the summer of 2014 and we tried to prevent it,” he said during the three-and-a-half hour hearing held by the parliament’s State Control Committee.
Netanyahu contended that war was inevitable and that the conflict was a clear victory for Israel, seen by the fact that Hamas “begged” for it to end.
The highly critical state comptroller report, published in February, noted serious mistakes and failures by the military and government ahead of and during the 50-day conflict, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
One of the most damning allegations, repeated in the meeting by one of the report’s authors Brig. Gen. (res.) Yosef Beinhorn, contended that better decision-making practices could have obviated the need for a military operation entirely.
Wednesday’s committee hearing frequently broke down into partisan squabbles and arguments between lawmakers and the families of fallen soldiers.
The meeting was the third and final session called by the committee to discuss the state comptroller report, and representatives from nearly every political party were present as Netanyahu was called in to answer questions about the report for the first time.
Noticeably absent from the meeting was Jewish Home party leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who was an outspoken critic of Netanyahu and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s conduct during the conflict.
At the beginning of his remarks, Netanyahu said he agreed that a productive conversation about the conflict was necessary, but that an open-door committee meeting wasn’t the right forum.
“Invite me to an operative discussion, not in front of the cameras,” Netanyahu said, motioning to the journalists in the back of the room. “We can talk about what happened during Protective Edge and afterwards.”
Committee head Karin Elharar accepted Netanyahu’s request and said she would try to schedule a closed-door meeting within the next few weeks.
No negotiations with Hamas
The meeting was a sign of how charged the conflict remains in many circles nearly three years later, with politicians and others continuing to argue over war-time decisions and efforts to secure the remains of two soldiers killed in battle ongoing, and a tense border coupled with reported Hamas efforts to rebuild its tunnels running under the Strip and into Israel leading many to believe a new conflict may be a matter of when, not if.
Some 68 IDF soldiers were killed in the summer 2014 fighting, along with six civilians in Israel. Over 2,000 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, most of them combatants, according to Israel.
The prime minister presented the war as inevitable, citing the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank that was among the main catalysts of the conflict. After Israel arrested many Hamas members during the search for the teens, the group formulated a plan to attack Israel by air, through the use of rocket fire and hang-gliders; by sea, with frogmen; and by land, through its subterranean tunnel network, Netanyahu said, adding that most of the attack plans were thwarted by the IDF.
The prime minister said that at the start of the operation he spoke with then-US president Barack Obama, who voiced his opposition to an Israeli ground campaign. “I told him that if the threat of tunnels continued, we would need to go in.”
Netanyahu asserted that the campaign — which he presented as a multi-pronged military plan by Hamas with the goal of ending the naval blockade on the coastal enclave — did not end by way of ceasefire negotiations brokered by Egypt.
Asked how the fighting ended if there were no negotiations with the terror group, Netanyahu said, “The military wing [of Hamas] begged — there’s no other word for it — begged the political wing, which lives abroad: Please, we can’t do it anymore.
“There was no deal. What there was is that they threw up their hands — pure and simple,” he added.
The prime minister also repeatedly dismissed the suggestion that Israel could have reached a diplomatic arrangement with Hamas.
“The thought of a political alternative with Hamas is ludicrous to me,” Netanyahu said, likening it on several occasions to cutting a deal with the Islamic State group in Raqqa and Mosul.
Looking ahead, Netanyahu told the committee there was little hope for the Gaza Strip and no possibility of direct negotiations with Hamas for “political alternatives” to war.
Without a diplomatic solution, he said, the only alternative for the future was another war, which he noted would look similar but more forceful than the past three campaigns in the Strip.
“Our ability to hurt Gaza has grown. I won’t elaborate,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister was presumably referring to capabilities revealed by IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot last month, which allow the military to attack Hamas tunnels from afar.
The prime minister also touched briefly on the new barrier being constructed on the Gaza border to protect Israel from underground tunnels.
“I hope one day there’s a State Control Committee meeting about why we invested so many resources in this,” he said.
Netanyahu said Hamas is deterred, noting that the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel in recent months were not launched by Hamas, but by fringe Salafists.
“It’s almost three years since Protective Edge. We are in the midst of the quietest time period, as IDF Chief Gadi Eisenkot said recently, since the Six Day War,” Netanyahu said.
In addition to taking out 34 Hamas tunnels, the IDF destroyed military infrastructure and killed approximately 1,000 Hamas fighters, including “about a third of its general staff,” Netanyahu said.
But the problem with war in Gaza, Netanyahu said, is that all Israel can do is restore its deterrence against Hamas because the only other option is taking over the Gaza Strip entirely. “And if you occupy, you have to know who you’re going to hand it over to,” he said.
In the meantime, Israel has to deal with a growing humanitarian crisis in the Strip, where according to Netanyahu, each attempt to resolve it only helps Hamas.
“Hamas takes 70% of the [gross domestic] product of Gaza. You should see how [Hamas leaders] live, in their ‘military headquarters’. We don’t have a battalion or brigade commander who lives as well,” he said.
According to Netanyahu, Hamas expects Israel to take care of its population. “Hamas doesn’t care about the people of Gaza.”
“We increased the number of trucks going into Gaza from 250 before Protective Edge to about 1,000. And then we realized quickly that they were being rerouted [to Hamas] and so we lowered it again to what it is now, about 600,” he said.
“I’ve spoken with people in the region. We’re the only ones who care about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. It’s absurd,” Netanyahu said.
‘You’re right or you’re wrong’
The state comptroller report debated by the committee on Wednesday was centered around the management of the security cabinet by Netanyahu and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, specifically the cabinet’s alleged failure to set concrete, strategic goals for the military in the campaign. It also noted intelligence gaps and tactical mistakes by the Israel Defense Forces, then led by Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, notably its unpreparedness for the threat of Hamas tunnels.
The prime minister responded to the recommendations in the report that called for changes to the structure of the security cabinet, saying “there’s no mechanical, systematic, Cartesian way to change the way that decisions are made.”
While conceding that ministers should have received full updates, the prime minister expressed opposition to enshrining in law procedural changes to the panel, which he said would make decision-making impossible.
According to Netanyahu, there are diminishing returns for discussions about strategic issues — what kind of security fence is best, how many missile interceptors Israel needs, etc.
“You can never have enough meetings. At some point, a decision needs to be made,” he said. “Either you’re right or you’re wrong.”
Lawmakers, father of fallen soldier spar
During the discussion, members of the coalition clashed repeatedly with politicians from the opposition and, at times, with Ilan Sagi, the bereaved father of Erez Sagi, and with Lea Goldin, the mother of Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose body is currently being held by Hamas in Gaza, along with the body of Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul.
“Operation Protective Edge isn’t over. Hamas wanted to kidnap soldiers and it still has two of them,” said a visibly emotional Leah Goldin.
Her voice rising and quavering, she accused Netanyahu of turning their families into the “enemy of the people,” pitting their desire to retrieve their sons’ remains against the country’s security needs.
As Likud MK Miki Zohar cut in, she told him to be quiet. “I don’t even know who you are,” she said, punctuating her displeasure with the junior lawmaker by tossing a cup of water in his direction as the two yelled at each other.
Committee chair Elharar asked Netanyahu why decisions about the war couldn’t be made in the “proper way,” meaning with the input of the cabinet. Before the prime minister could answer, Zohar and David Bitan, also from Likud, interjected and yelled about leaks from the cabinet meetings.
As opposition party members shouted back at what they dubbed the “Likud choir,” Sagi demanded that Bitan and Zohar be more respectful and stop “bellyaching.”
“Where were you during the war? My son’s under the ground, and they’re acting like they’re the heroes,” said Sagi, whose son was among several soldiers killed in a pillbox bunker by gunmen who emerged from a cross-border tunnel in Israeli territory.
Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah sparred verbally with Netanyahu and his military secretary over the specifics of the army’s preparedness for the tunnel threat. (Their argument continued into the halls of the Knesset at the end of the committee meeting.)
Shelah insisted that the army did not have a process in place to deal with the tunnels, while Netanyahu and his military secretary Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano said that though there was no “piece of paper” with the orders on it, in practice, the army did know how to handle the tunnels.
There were only a few incidents of Hamas gunmen coming into Israel through the tunnels, “which cost us eight — no, 11 soldiers,” Netanyahu said, noting that no civilians were killed by the underground threat during the conflict.
The room fell silent when Michal Keidar, whose husband Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar was killed in the 2014 war, spoke.
“The job of the government — and every Knesset member — is to prevent the next war,” she said. “You all keep saying the war was inevitable, but there’s always another option.”
Turning to Netanyahu, Keidar added, “Stop blaming everyone for your failures.”
Breaking down in tears, she decried the committee meeting as a “big play in front of the cameras” with every politician playing a part rather than a serious discussion on how to prevent failures in the future that could save human lives.