'A shameful embarrassment. They went for Halevi relentlessly'

Meeting on next phases in Gaza ends in fracas as ministers snipe at IDF chief over probe

Right-wing politicians question timing of internal IDF Oct. 7 investigation while fighting ongoing, as Gallant, Gantz come to Halevi’s defense and tell lawmakers to butt out

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF chief Herzi Halevi, October 23, 2023. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF chief Herzi Halevi, October 23, 2023. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

A meeting of top ministers intended to discuss planning for the next phases of Israel’s war against Hamas and the administration of Gaza after the war ended in a loud and angry dustup between ministers and military brass, according to reports early Friday, as right-wing lawmakers cried foul over plans for the army to probe its own mistakes.

The brawl saw right-wing politicians, including some from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, take aim at Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi over both the timing of the inquest — an internal IDF operational probe which could also help with the IDF’s performance in the ongoing war — and the inclusion of an ex-defense minister.

The feud brought to the surface long-simmering tensions between the military and some in the hard-right coalition over Israeli policies vis à vis the Palestinians, exposing cracks in the largely unified front presented by the cabinet since war broke out three months ago. It came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to the region for highly anticipated talks on plans to wind down fighting and ultimately hand over civil control of Gaza.

Reports in Hebrew media outlets, which quoted unnamed participants, said Netanyahu cut off the meeting after three hours with shouting erupting as some ministers came to Halevi’s defense; he was not reported to have intervened to stop the assailing of the chief of staff. One minister told the Kan broadcaster that they understood the donnybrook “could be heard outside the room.” Another said some defense officials left early, in apparent protest of their treatment.

As the late-night meeting got underway, reports emerged that Halevi was forming a committee of ex-defense officials to probe the army’s failures in the lead-up to Hamas’s October 7 attacks on southern Israel, which caught the military largely unprepared and unable to respond effectively for hours.

Some 1,200 people were killed in the onslaught and over 240 were taken hostage, as communities were overrun with ease by thousands of Hamas-led terrorists who invaded from land, air, and sea.

According to the reports, Transportation Minister Miri Regev confronted Halevi during the meeting about the probe, with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Regional Cooperation Minister David Amsalem joining in as they demanded to know why the army had decided to launch the investigation with fighting ongoing in Gaza.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev holds a press conference in Jerusalem, on April 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Why do we need to investigate now?” Amsalem was quoted asking. “So that military people are on the defensive instead of busying themselves with winning [the war]?”

Ministers also reportedly expressed anger over the inclusion of former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, due to his involvement in the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza; Mofaz was chief of staff at the time. Some on the far-right hope to see the disengagement from the Strip reversed following the war against Hamas, an idea that is widely considered a non-starter.

Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz speaking at a press conference at the party's headquarters July 17 (photo credit: Flash90)
Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz speaking at a press conference at the party’s headquarters July 17, 2012. (photo credit: Flash90)

“You appointed Mofaz? Are you crazy,” Regev was quoted saying.

“This is not the [full-scale] investigations into October 7 or into policies, but rather investigations to draw tactical lessons to be used in the ongoing war,” stressed Halevi.

“This is like me not giving you my schedule for tomorrow. If I need to investigate the operations, I don’t need approval,” he was further quoted as saying. He reportedly noted that the probe would help the army avoid the same mistakes as it prepares for possible war against the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant then spoke out in defense of Halevi and reportedly chided the ministers for “excoriating” the chief of staff. “I didn’t know about the probe, but I give full backing to the chief of staff,” said Gallant. If the chief of staff decided to set up an investigative team, I support him. It’s not your business.”

This set off fresh bickering over whether the army could order a probe without the politicians’ okay.

Regev said she was “trying to walk on eggshells and not to criticize” but said she had “no shortage of questions for the army.” She said she wanted to clarify whether the IDF was now investigating October 7, “because if so, we on the political level need to carry out investigations.”

Unlike Netanyahu and some other politicians, who have refused to explicitly accept blame or responsibility for allowing the attack on their watch, defense and intelligence agency heads have been largely forthright in accepting wrongdoing and promising to make changes.

As things grew heated and shouting began, Gallant told Regev, “Miri, I don’t work for you. Let me speak. The chief of staff can do what he wants.”

According to the reports, Ben Gvir and Smotrich accused Halevi of sticking to a failed conception regarding Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians exposed by the attacks. The criticism echoed swipes from the revanchist right against “day-after” plans in Gaza that give the Palestinians partial control of affairs in the Strip.

During the tussle, ministers aligned against Halevi noted that they had lots of criticism for the army, but had held off on publicly criticizing the military due to the ongoing war.

Smotrich was quoted saying he’d “had a bellyfull of the IDF” but was waiting until after the war to unload.

Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, from the National Unity party which joined the coalition as an emergency measure to have a say in the running of the war, asked in retort why there was no criticism for the political leadership as well.

Smotrich reportedly said it had been a “mistake for years” that the army had been allowed to pass the blame for its failures onto the political echelon, and that “this time it will be the other way around.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Yoav Galant, and Minister Benny Gantz attend a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

After Ben Gvir castigated the appointment of Mofaz to Halevi’s probe, calling the former IDF chief of staff “the leader of the disengagement,” war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, also a former chief of staff and defense minister, exploded at him.

Said Gantz: “This is a professional investigation, what does it have to do with the disengagement and conceptions? This is not a political probe, it’s an operational probe. The chief of staff is fucking probing what happened, now, to serve our battle aims. This is not a national probe.”

Israel’s political leaders have pointedly refused to look into mistakes that allowed the October 7 assault to occur, promising that they will do so after the war, which was launched with the twin goals of eliminating Hamas and returning the hostages, with some predicting it could take a year or longer of fighting.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the bickering continued, Netanyahu declared the meeting over, saying it would be continued another time. There was no government statement on the session.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, as he closed the meeting Netanyahu told Halevi: “Sometimes, you need to listen to the ministers.”

The, according to Channel 12, Netanyahu added: “We need to stop now; we’ll continue another time.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi at a security assessment at the military’s Northern Command, December 7, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Ministers speaking to the broadcaster expressed anger at the way Halevi was treated, with one saying that the government needs to rethink whether the security cabinet as currently made up “is fit to make decisions on our defense policies.”

“What happened there was a shameful embarrassment,” another minister told the station. “You can criticize the IDF, but they went after the chief of staff relentlessly.”

The meeting came days before Blinken is set to visit Israel to discuss “transitioning to the next phase” of the war, according to the State Department spokesman Matthew Miller, who noted that the talks would likely touch on areas of disagreement.

“We don’t expect every conversation on this trip to be easy. There are obviously tough issues facing the region and difficult choices ahead, but the secretary believes it is the responsibility of the United States of America to lead diplomatic efforts to tackle those challenges head-on, and he’s prepared to do that in the days to come,” the State Department spokesman said.

The meeting had initially been scheduled for Tuesday but was delayed after the assassination of Hamas terror chief Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, which has been widely attributed to Israel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during his end-of-year news conference on December 20, 2023, at the State Department in Washington, DC. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)

Netanyahu had originally sought to hold the “day after” discussion with the smaller war cabinet that does not include the ministers who spoke out against Halevi, but moved it to the security cabinet after pressure from Smotrich and Ben Gvir, according to reports.

The premier had reportedly tried to avoid any such discussion because it would involve debate over a possible role that Palestinian Authority officials would have in managing Gaza’s civil affairs after Hamas is defeated.

The delay has frustrated the Biden administration, which envisages a reformed PA eventually governing Gaza as part of a two-state solution and argues that failure to plan for who will govern Gaza after the war could lead to the Israel Defense Forces being bogged down in the enclave indefinitely.

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