"Our planning was clearly wrong," admitted Minister Without Portfolio Ze'ev Binyamin (Benny) Begin during a meeting of the State Control Committee on Thursday, one day after the state comptroller issued a report criticizing the government's conduct in the face of the 2010 Gaza flotilla.
The Turkish flotilla had tried to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. In efforts to prevent the ships from docking in Gaza, Israeli commandos boarded the ships, meeting unexpected resistance on one such ship, the Mavi Marmara. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the ensuing clash. The state comptroller on Wednesday blamed the government of being ill prepared for the flotilla.
Begin commended "the rapid, courageous and resourceful response by the naval commandos aboard the Marmara," explaining that "they were surprised, like many others, by the force of the resistance, and, unfortunately, great losses were suffered as they quelled the resistance."
Committee Chairman MK Uri Ariel, announced at the start of the meeting that "the [comptroller's] report indicates a very problematic, even faulty decision making process. There was a lack of coordination and failure to prepare. The prime minister, serving his second term, failed to internalize the lessons of the first term of the Netanyahu government and the importance of coordination between all the offices. This is very alarming, especially in reference to other threats that face us. The flotilla is certainly not the biggest or most significant threat that we will face, and it is certainly not the last, not in our region. There is room for concern, and room for improvement."
On Wednesday, the state comptroller's report elicited strong responses from across the political spectrum.
Opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) said that the report was "very problematic." She said further that the report indicated that the prime minister acted "arrogantly and consulted only with himself and with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in what was a reckless and over-confident decision-making process." She went on to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak's effort failed and had them "convinced that they can lead the country on their own, to decide things in back-room deals where only they are present. Too bad those who had to bear the price for the hubris and complacency are the commandos, who — unlike our leaders — acted with courage, with resourcefulness and mutual responsibility."
Fellow Labor MK Eitan Cabel also warned of the report's potentially wider implications. "What is worrisome here is the fact that the same people who failed in the flotilla affair are the one who have to make decisions on the Iranian issue," Cabel said. Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On echoed Cabel's remarks, saying, "Netanyahu's strategic shortcomings in mishandling the Marmara crisis are a warning sign when it comes to Iran."
Immediately after the publication of the report, Netanyahu deflected criticism, saying "Israelis enjoy a level of security they haven't had in years."
"The scope and number of national security meetings over the past three years is unprecedented; the meetings' participants can attest to this fact," Netanyahu said, before adding that he appreciated the exhaustive review carried out by the state comptroller.
One senior official stressed Wednesday that "all the relevant office holders attended the meetings." The official pointed to a previous state comptroller report that shows a total of 57 classified meetings were held between January 2010 and April 2011 (handled by the prime minister's military secretary) and other meetings dealing with various operational activities. "In addition, there were dozens of meetings to discuss the various national security and diplomatic challenges facing the state of Israel," the official said.
The official further noted that "even if deliberations on the Turkish-led flotilla had been different, the outcome may have been the same; the fact is that the decision-making process ahead of the Greek flotilla and the so-called 'flightillas' [over the following two years] was similar to that used to prepare for the Turkish flotilla." The official noted that the prime minister told the state comptroller that the interdiction of the Greek flotilla had been successful even without the cabinet first deliberating on it or having the National Security Council engaged on this issue.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office also noted that in the run-up to the Turkish flotilla Israel tried to exert diplomatic pressure in efforts of nipping it in the bud and preventing it from reaching the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu also communicated several messages to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan via third parties, "which created a real likelihood that it could be thwarted."
Barak also reacted to the report. A statement released by Barak's office said he "accepts the findings and will act, as he did in the past, to have the defense establishment and the IDF fix what needs fixing. This is what needs to be done, and this is what will be done."
MK Hanin Zoabi (National Democratic Assembly), who actually participated in the flotilla as an activist, attacked the state comptroller, accusing him of shirking his responsibility. "Instead of investigating the pirate-like action, the murder of the activists and the attack on a civilian vessel carrying humanitarian aid, the state comptroller has been colluding with the Israeli defense establishment to orchestrate a cover-up of the facts."
The Israel Defense Forces welcomed the report's findings, with officials saying they were studying the report and its conclusions thouroughly as the army considers this to be of utmost importance. The IDF launched its own investigation immediately after the incident, through a comprehensive debriefing mechanism "because of a real desire to draw the necessary lessons and to see their speedy implementation. Most of the lessons have already been implemented in practice in the efforts to thwart subsequent flotillas."
Turkey has so far not issued an official comment on the report. The Turkish media reported the main conclusions of the report, and quoted several Israeli officials.
Turkish officials said Ankara will communicate its reaction to the report and its findings on the Israeli leadership at a later date. Even before the report's publication, government officials in Turkey stated that their view on incident had not changed and that Turkey still demands that Israel apologize for the IDF actions and pay compensation to the families of the Turkish victims. They further said they expected Israel to lift the blockade over the Gaza Strip.
Turkey downgraded its relations with Israel in August after negotiations aimed at shoring up relations failed. The main bone of contention revolved around Turkey's demand for an apology, with Israel reportedly agreeing to express sorrow. Turkish prosecutors recently filed an indictment against current and former IDF officials over their involvement in the raid. Among the defendants — who will be tried in absentia in November — are former IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and the former Director of the Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin and former head of the Israel Navy Vice Adm. Eliezer (Chiney) Marom and the top Israel Air Force intelligence officer at the time, Avishai Levy. They are charged with the premeditated murder of nine Turkish citizens.