A report released by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss on Wednesday is scathing in its criticism of the government's handling of the lead-up to the 2010 naval commando raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla during which nine Turkish citizens were killed, dozens of activists and several commandos were injured, and which set Israel's relations with Turkey, a regional superpower and former ally, on a path of ever-intensifying confrontation and enmity.
The 153-page report focuses on the government's decision-making process and lack of organization and not on the military operation itself.
The comptroller's report includes two sections, the first of which deals with implementation of the 2008 National Security Council Law, and the second dealing with the incident on May 31, 2010, in which Israeli naval commandos boarded a flotilla of ships bound for blockaded Gaza. On the Mavi Marmara, the largest ship, commandos faced violent resistance from a group of activists from the Turkish humanitarian organization known as the IHH.
The report also points out the way the country's public diplomacy organizations failed to work effectively with the military and other bodies during the Marmara incident, as well as confusion between and amongst the various public diplomacy groups. A separate undisclosed section deals with Israeli intelligence concerning the Turkish flotilla in 2010.
On the issue of the Mavi Marmara raid, Lindenstrauss found "substansive and significant deficiencies" in the decision-making processes of the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and holds him responsible for the way in which the incident was handled. "The decision-making process was done without any organized staff work, no coordination, and no minutes of meetings were kept, despite the fact that the IDF brass, intelligence agencies, and the National Security Council were all aware of the uniqueness of the Turkish flotilla," the report said.
Netanyahu, the report continued, “did not internalize that the forcible stopping of the flotilla was liable to spark a violent confrontation on the decks of the Mavi Marmara.”
A U.N. report on the Mavi Marmara raid, which was released in September 2011, described the activists as a "separate hardcore group" who had been armed with iron bars, chains and knives. The report acknowledged the legitimacy of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, but criticized its use of "excessive force" during the operation. It also said Turkey should have done more to prevent the flotilla from sailing towards Gaza.
Turkey has consistently requested that Israel apologize for the deaths of the Turkish citizens and compensate families of the victims. Two weeks ago, Turkish prosecutors submitted to the High Criminal Court in Istanbul indictments of four former Israeli military leaders they claim were responsible for the incident, including former Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi. Prosecutors requested nine life sentences for each defendant.
Israel has officially refused to apologize for the incident, although government officials have said they are willing to discuss the matter to reach a mutually acceptable compromise.
Lindenstrauss blamed Netanyahu for not instructing the relevant authorities to form an integrative work group to deal with the flotilla.
He stated that separate meetings were held between the prime minister and the defense and foreign ministers, but no meeting was held at the cabinet level to discuss the issue. "The only meeting held by the 'forum of seven ministers' took place only five days before the flotilla arrived. It was a last-minute discussion with no real direction, preparation or proper representation by officials who should have been involved in the matter," Lindenstrauss wrote.
The state comptroller emphasized that his criticism is directed at the way the discussions were held, the lack of leadership on the part of the National Security Council and the lack of documentation concerning the meetings, and not at the political or military results of the flotilla operation.
According to the report, Israel's public diplomacy during the raid was also faulty. Lindenstrauss lashed out at the Foreign Ministry's inability to operate during the raid the way it was expected to. No one was responsible for briefing the foreign media which determines the tone of response to Israel's actions, and there was no organized procedure for releasing government statements as there is in other countries, the comptroller wrote.
Netanyahu responded to the report's accusations, which he was aware of before the report was released to the public on Wednesday, in a meeting with Lindenstrauss in 2011. During that meeting, the prime minister commented on the matter of conducting inter-office meetings concerning security-related issues, saying "We must leave that to the discretion of the prime minister, who cannot operate properly otherwise. There are different ministerial panels, some of which may need to be placed under the authority of the National Security Council."
As for the National Security Council Law, which in 2008 officially established the body that acts as a conduit for the prime minister and the government concerning national security issues, the comptroller's report says that since the approval of the Law three years ago, "there are still gaps between the law's instructions and its implementation."
It was Netanyahu himself who established the National Security Council during his first term of office in 1996.
Citing the prime minister's responsibility for the law's implementation, the report states that the council has not been fulfilling its role as set out by the Winograd Commission, formed after the Second Lebanon War in 2006 to review the way the war was run, as well as the Lipkin-Shahak committee, formed a year later to implement the Winograd Commission's report. Neither commissions' recommendations about the National Security Council have been implemented to date.
"There are significant gaps between the law's instructions and its implementation. In many areas, there is no overall staff work by non-executive bodies which can shed light on all the different aspects of the issue under discussion. Therefore, the decision-making process at the highest level of the Israeli government, for some crucial topics, is not the best it can be," wrote Lindenstrauss.
The comptroller recommended that all intelligence data be concentrated in the National Security Council, to enable it to provide a more comprehensive picture of the matter at hand for the prime minister and defense minister, and that the prime minister take responsibility for the National Security Council's operation, since its work is relevant to both the Prime Minister's Office and his military secretary.
According to Lindenstrauss, Netanyahu said that some of the foreign and security related information he receives is not passed on to the National Security Council, which negates instructions covered by the law which Netanyahu himself initiated. Netanyahu also was said to have transferred some functions assigned to former National Security Council head Uzi Arad to his military secretary, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker instead, including overseeing a daily meeting schedule, following up on decisions made during meetings conducted by the prime minister and coordinating work by ministers in the areas of foreign affairs and state security.
In another apparent violation of the National Security Council Law, Lindenstrauss points out that Arad was not invited to meetings held by the state's covert services, as he should have been.
In the meeting with the state comptroller in 2011, Netanyahu explained his position, saying "I have never thought, even though it was determined by the law, that one individual was to give me all the advice. This is a recipe for disaster. The National Security Council should be the primary body, but not the only one. I truly believe it is dangerous for the prime minister to be in a position where he receives, in almost all the areas I mentioned, a single opinion or an opinion that includes other opinions the individual has gathered."
Concerning the division of labor between the National Security Council and the military secretary, Netanyahu said "We must first conduct all security-related cabinet and ministerial-level meetings. The military secretary handles daily intelligence reports and operations. The two bodies have clear and different functions. It is difficult to plan in advance and say that a particular operation will need to be handled by the council."
Netanyahu said he decides which operations will be handled by the National Security Council based on, among other things, the way he perceives the council's ability to handle them.
The state comptroller's report also raised questions about whether or not Netanyahu knew that the raid on the Turkish flotilla could turn into a violent clash.
Netanyahu's office claimed in the meeting with the state comptroller in 2011 that then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi did not express any concern to him that the flotilla members could, or would, turn violent against Israeli soldiers.
Responding to the report Wednesday, the Prime Minister's Office said, "The Prime Minister wishes to convey his admiration for the State Comptroller for his work. Based on current results, Israeli citizens enjoy a level of security they haven't enjoyed in years. This security is a direct result of responsible management and determined policies. Security-related meetings held in the past three years have been unprecedented in their scope and depth and everyone who participated in them will testify to that."
The PMO statement added that, "All relevant political and security officials participate in the meetings. Proof of this can be found in the comptroller's report itself, which states that between Jan. 2010 and Apr. 2011, there were 57 meetings on classified topics, which are handled by the military secretary under the prime minister's supervision. The meetings also involved matters related to operations conducted by the different security services. Many more meetings were held to discuss the political and security challenges Israel faces."
The statement said that Lindenstrauss pointed out that even if the decision-making process during the Turkish flotilla incident in 2010 were different, "the results would not necessarily have been different as well."
The statement said that "the same processes were used during the attempted Greek flotilla and two flights of activists to Ben-Gurion International Airport, all of which were thwarted. The prime minister told the comptroller that the Greek flotilla was stopped without a meeting by either the cabinet or the council on the matter."
The PMO statement pointed out that in the period prior to the Turkish flotilla incident and during it, the government conducted many activities in which Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak took part. The activities focused on preventing the flotilla's launch or preventing it from reaching Gaza once it set sail. According to the statement, Netanyahu sent messages (through third parties) to the Turkish prime minister, which made prevention of the flotilla a definite possibility.
Concerning the National Security Council Law, the PMO statement said "The comptroller mentioned that there was significant progress which noticeably increased the council's involvement in the decision-making processes."
A statement by the Public Diplomacy Ministry said "In accordance with the comptroller's recommendations, we will formulate a plan for necessary rectifications and improvements within the public diplomacy realm. We have already begun to make changes in accordance with some of the failures pointed out by the comptroller."
Commenting on the report, Barak said he accepts the criticism and will work, as he did in the past, to rectify anything that needs to be repaired in the Israeli military and the entire defense establishment. "That is what must be done, and that is what we will do," he said.
National Security Council Director and National Security Adviser Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror also responded on Wednesday to the report, saying, "The State Comptroller himself says that he is not at all sure that there is a link between a different process and better results. Since the Turkish flotilla, there have been another flotilla (the 'Greek flotilla'), two fly-ins and other incidents. The result in these was different. Today, there are other major issues that we are dealing with in the international arena. I think that if one looks at all these events, one understands that the decision-making process is much, much better. All of the aforesaid events were dealt with in an orderly decision-making process."