Leaked transcripts of discussions between senior Israeli officials during the 2014 war with Gaza published Tuesday paint a picture of a deeply fractious leadership, with ministers riven over whether to pursue an aggressive offensive or simply seek to contain Hamas before and during the bloody 50-day conflict.
The rancorous transcripts, published by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, offer a near-unprecedented glimpse into the inner working of the secretive body, which is charged with overseeing wartime decision making.
The publication, which may violate information security rules, comes as lawmakers are mulling the release of a state watchdog report that reportedly excoriates the cabinet over failing to properly prepare for and counter threats from terror group Hamas during the war.
In the excerpts, which begin in the lead-up to the war, then-economy minister Naftali Bennett, from the hawkish Jewish Home party, is seen leading a camp pushing for immediate and heavy action against Hamas in Gaza, despite the possible high human costs.
“Be galloping horses, not lazy bulls,” Bennett chides the IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, at one point, pushing for a plan to destroy a network of tunnels used by Hamas to attack Israeli soldiers both in the Strip and in Israel.
Others, led in the cabinet discussions by then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, but including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-finance minister Yair Lapid, insisted on a more restrained response, even as Israeli cities were bombarded by rockets from Gaza and IDF soldiers were dying in bitter gun battles in Gaza.
Over 70 Israelis were killed in the war, most of them soldiers, and over 2,000 were killed on the Palestinian side in an intense bombing campaign and ground invasion in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas.
Israel, which launched the offensive — dubbed Operation Protective Edge — to stem rocket fire and later to also destroy Hamas’s subterranean military infrastructure, maintains that over half of the Gazans killed were fighters.
The transcripts published by Yedioth begin on June 30, over a week before the war and just hours after troops combing the West Bank found the bodies of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and murdered by a Hamas cell from the Hebron area, an attack that would soon snowball into the full-fledged conflict.
In the months before the kidnapping, the IDF had uncovered a number of tunnels from Gaza reaching into Israel, leading to assessments that Hamas terrorists were planning a large-scale attack.
As Israel cracked down on Hamas members in the West Bank in response to the triple abduction and murder, an attack that shocked much of the Israeli public, rocket fire from Gaza into Israel intensified and public pressure for a response grew.
‘Tunnels not there to rust’
The transcripts show, though, that while Bennett was pushing for a response to the tunnels, most others in the top decision-making forum were wary of provoking a fresh war.
“The response to the [murders] until now has been weak and shameful,” Bennett lashes out in the transcript. “In Gaza there are dozens of tunnels intended for kidnappings. They’re not there to rust,” he is quoted as saying.
“We have to take the initiative,” he insists.
According to Yedioth, the “rust” comment is likely a dig at Ya’alon, who, in the run-up to the 2006 Second Lebanon War, said Hezbollah’s rockets would “rust” in their warehouses. Hezbollah fired thousands of those rockets at Israeli cities in the course of the war that summer.
All the ministers oppose Bennett’s proposal for a Gaza escalation.
“The tunnels are a real threat to the State of Israel,” Netanyahu says, “and they could change the [strategic] balance between us and them. Bogie,” he turns to Ya’alon, using his nickname, “I want you to present a plan tomorrow that includes taking control of the openings.”
“We have such a plan,” Ya’alon replies.
“I don’t know it,” says Netanyahu.
On July 1, the question returns to the security cabinet.
Ya’alon warns against a hasty response. “Hamas does not have any intention of activating its tunnels of its own initiative,” he tells the ministers. “We must be wary of making a miscalculation.”
“In the Gilad Shalit incident, did they give [indications of intending to kidnap]?” Bennett retorts, referring to the 2006 kidnapping of the Israeli soldier from the Israeli side of the Gaza border.
“No,” Ya’alon admits.
Netanyahu is quoted continuing to push for a containment policy.
“You think if we do nothing, they’ll contain [themselves]?” Bennett demands.
“Yes,” Ya’alon says.
Gilad Erdan, who was then communications minister, tells Ya’alon the army has presented a plan “for conquering Gaza, but not for taking care of the tunnels.”
“We have presented it,” says Ya’alon.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gantz also pushes for containment.
“Hamas doesn’t want to act,” he says. “They’ve already said on their radio [station in Gaza], ‘We made a mistake with the kidnapping [of the three teens].'”
The next day, July 2, Ya’alon warns ministers that he is against taking action against the tunnels for fear it could lead to a wider conflagration. “It might draw us in,” he says.
At that point, the head of army intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, insists, “There are dozens of indications Hamas doesn’t want a fight.”
Gantz agrees: “I recommend the strategic exposure of Hamas’s tunnels program,” apparently urging that the extent and threat of the tunnels be made public.
Bennett again turns to the possibility of an IDF operation.
“How long would a ground operation against the tunnels take?” he asks the generals.
“Two or three days,” says Gantz.
The actual anti-tunnel operation took 19 days, as Israeli officials discovered the full, unrealized, extent of the underground network of dozens of tunnels criss-crossing the Strip.
We can live with the tunnels
On July 3, Netanyahu is still looking for a way to neutralize the tunnels threat without an incursion.
He asks Gantz if “detonating the shafts would neutralize the use of tunnels.”
“I don’t know,” Gantz replies. “It might disrupt.”
“Would it save us from having to enter the tunnels?” Netanyahu asks.
“The effectiveness of exploding [the shafts] is very low,” says Gantz.
Noticing that the options are shrinking, Gantz warns the ministers that “it is likely that an operation against the tunnels would lead to conquering all of Gaza.”
Ya’alon says Israel can live with the tunnels. “We live with no small number of developing threats. I suggest not starting an action against the tunnels.”
Four days later, on July 7, amid escalating rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli Air Force responses, Hamas seems to make its decision: it cannot afford to deescalate, so it must escalate. A barrage of over 100 rockets from Gaza hits Israeli towns and cities. The cabinet formally decides on Operation Protective Edge.
Ya’alon, meanwhile, still wants to limit the scope of the operation. “We can reach a ceasefire. It’s wrong to reach the point where we strip them of the tunnels. We must see the Egyptian mediation through.”
Bennett yet again takes the more aggressive tack. “I recommend an action to neutralize the tunnels.
“And if you gain quiet for the next three years without destroying the tunnels, what’s bad about that?” Ya’alon retorts.
“And if we suffer a strategic terror attack, it will be Gilad Shalit times 100. Better to prevent it, and I haven’t seen a plan for doing that,” says Bennett.
“And after you go in, they won’t build more tunnels?” Ya’alon asks.
Push to conquer Gaza
The next day, July 8, with Operation Protective Edge officially underway, ministers are starting to demand more aggressive and decisive action.
“We must conquer Gaza and comprehensively remove the threat,” says Yuval Steinitz, the minister for strategic affairs at the time.
“Let’s not get overexcited,” replies then-justice minister Tzipi Livni.
“Army intelligence was wrong in its assessments up to this point. We have to conquer Gaza,” demands Avigdor Liberman, then the foreign minister.
Finance minister Lapid sides with Ya’alon: “I oppose a ground incursion.”
On July 10, with the home front continuing to take volleys of rockets from Gaza, a ground operation increasingly becomes the favored option among ministers.
Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman presents the cabinet with a plan called “Forward Defense” that includes a limited one-kilometer incursion beyond the border fence in order to neutralize the tunnels.
Ya’alon and Gantz still oppose the move, however, and the cabinet refuses to approve it.
“There is a strategic threat that can be deployed against us at any moment,” insists Turgeman. “There are at least nine tunnels that crossed into our territory [and can be used to stage major terrorist attacks inside Israel].”
“Do we continue shooting [from outside Gaza] or [turn to] a ground operation?” asks Netanyahu.
“I oppose a ground operation,” Gantz says. “We have achieved a great deal up to now. Hamas is hurt. The tunnels are a tolerable danger.”
Bennett asks about Turgeman’s proposal: “How broad would an operation against the tunnels be?”
“There would be friction,” says Turgeman, a military term for expected enemy resistance, “but we know how to deal with it.”
“What would you do in our shoes?” Bennett asks.
“He isn’t in your shoes, he’s a galloping horse,” quips Ya’alon.
“Then not in our shoes, in your shoes,” Bennett replies, unfazed.
“In my shoes and in yours, I’d go in with three brigade-level battle teams to neutralize the tunnel threat,” Turgeman answers.
“We have the condition to create deterrence,” Kochavi affirms, appearing to take Turgeman’s side.
But Ya’alon continues to insist on restraint. “I look at the tunnels threat as an unsolved problem, and we won’t solve [it] in this action either.”
Liberman chimes in with an all-or-nothing approach. “Go for a broad operation in Gaza,” he says. “But if it’s [a choice] between an anti-tunnel operation [only] or a ceasefire, go for a ceasefire.”
‘You want to run the army for me’
On July 17, the IDF intercepts and prevents a large planned raid on Israel by “dozens of Hamas gunmen” via a tunnel near the Kerem Shalom crossing. In response, the cabinet finally decides on a ground operation.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Bennett said at the time.
By July 27, with dozens of dead soldiers and massive international pressure for a ceasefire, the internal schisms in the cabinet have reached their peak.
Ya’alon rails at Bennett over his unauthorized visits to the field and meetings with officers behind his back.
“You want to run the army for me,” Ya’alon says. “I won’t allow you to come back from visits to the field and tell me, ‘do this’ or ‘do that,’ you hear?”
Bennett doesn’t budge. “I will, if the truth isn’t being reported [to the cabinet],” he says.
“I’m reporting the truth,” says Ya’alon.
“Until now we haven’t heard about [the developing] ceasefire with Hamas.”
Ya’alon: “I report to you?”
Bennett: “Of course.”
Bennett then turns on the chief of staff. “I expect you to come to the cabinet with operational plans and a fighting spirit. I’m not the one who’s supposed to bring [to the cabinet] plans for destroying the tunnels. Be galloping horses, not lazy bulls.”
Five days later, on August 1, after a Hamas operation violates the ceasefire and causes the deaths of Maj. Benaya Sarel, Lt. Hadar Goldin and First Sergeant Liel Gidoni, unhappiness with the restrained Netanyahu-Ya’alon line grows.
Erdan asks Kochavi, the intelligence chief, why the orders given to Givati Brigade fighters in Gaza during the ceasefire limited their ability to respond in ways that placed them in danger. “If I’d known this would be the case during ceasefires, I would have opposed them,” he says.
Looking for Facebook ‘likes’
The publication of the transcript on Tuesday drew fierce criticism from ministers who were involved in the discussions.
In a thinly veiled accusation at Bennett, Ya’alon said Tuesday, “Unfortunately, I see this morning that politicians are leaking from inside the [cabinet] discussions, just to win a few more ‘likes’ on Facebook.”
Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv, he suggested the cabinet had acted well in that war. “We defined the goals of the campaign precisely beforehand, and we achieved them. We achieved the ceasefire. Most importantly, Hamas is weak and deterred, and the south [of Israel] is enjoying unprecedented quiet. This is an example of responsible and careful leadership with a steady hand on the wheel even when there are some politicians [undermining that leadership] both during the operation and afterwards.”
Steinitz, now the energy minister, called the leak “pure damage to the State of Israel.”
Livni, who also spoke at the INSS conference, said the key complaint raised by Bennett and others about the tunnels was not the main failing revealed in the Gaza war, but rather the lack of an overarching strategy.
“The problem in Protective Edge was bigger than the tunnels. The cabinet has no policy with respect to Gaza, and the army and the defense establishment hunger for one. Is Gaza part of the Palestinian state? Is it part of Israel and we must reconquer it or return to the Gush Katif settlements, as [Jewish Home MK] Shuli Mualem suggested? We only work tactically, putting out fires one after another. You can’t run a military operation or anything else that way. That’s the real failure.”
She added: “There are tunnels today as well — and the cabinet isn’t deciding on an operation.”
She also criticized a “lack of coordination between the military and diplomatic” corps.
“Operation Protective Edge could have ended with a UN Security Council resolution against Hamas, the disarmament of Gaza and direct talks with the [Palestinian] Authority without preconditions, but Netanyahu was afraid to make that decision because no diplomatic goals were set for the operation,” she said.
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