When three Israeli teenagers were abducted and killed in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu personally assumed control of Brother’s Keeper, the June 14 military operation to locate Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrach.
On July 7, the prime minister also took the helm of Operation Protective Edge, aimed at halting the round-the-clock rocket salvos, more than 100 per day that Hamas has sent into Israel since June 27.
Netanyahu largely keeps his own counsel on military matters, but there is one man who has the prime minister’s ear at all times: Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. For more than a month now, the two men have been have effectively been running Israel’s military action against Hamas on their own.
Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen also has some sway on Netanyahu’s thinking, but his influence has lessened since Brother’s Keeper proved a washout.
This disappointment led Netanyahu to turn less to the Shin Bet chief in the first week of the Gaza operation and increasingly to Israeli Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel – partly because of the innate dissimilarities between the two operations. Brothers’ Keeper was supposed to uproot Hamas’s political and financial clout on the West Bank, whereas Protective Edge aims to smash the Palestinian Islamists’ military machine in the Gaza Strip.
But it took far too long to find the missing boys’ bodies and, as of this writing, their killers are still at large, although their identities are known.
Netanyahu relied on air power to keep the Gaza campaign brief
By adopting Eshel and Ya’alon as his top advisers, Netanyahu in effect went over the heads of the experienced and talented IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.
He also adopted Eshel’s doctrine that air power can accomplish the mission of defeating Hamas in short order. This offered a perfect fit for the prime minister’s demand for a swift and compelling victory over Hamas to make up for the unfinished West Bank operation.
Making the Air Force chief his point man and his choice of advisers accounted, in the view of DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence experts, for Netanyahu’s fundamental tactical blunders in both operations. They were further compounded by his insistence that diplomatic and political considerations were just as important as the military objectives – if not more so.
1. Netanyahu ordered nine IDF brigades, one Border Police Brigade and one Israel Police Brigade mustered for the mission of finding the kidnapped Israeli teenagers and their abductors – a total of 16,000 troops. This was the largest force ever raised in Israel – or anywhere else, for that matter – for a single counter-terror operation.
Yet it fell to civilian volunteers to eventually discover the three bodies partially concealed under rocks in the field of a Palestinian village north of Hebron.
Nuclear Iran and Al Qaeda as issues shunted out of view
Most of the troops have since been pulled out – without however apprehending the killers.
And also without Netanyahu ever telling the Israeli public why it took nearly three weeks to find the teenagers, or why their murderers are still free, a sorry end to an agonizing episode.
Nor has he explained how the military operation meant to crush Hamas in the West Bank morphed into the launch of a Hamas rocket blitz from Gaza against Israel’s population centers.
2. Netanyahu’s tendency to shunt key problems out of view, unattended and unsolved, without an accounting to the Israeli public or media, has grown into a political liability. It is taking its toll in the current crisis in flagging popular trust in his leadership as prime minister.
He has allowed the Iranian nuclear issue, for instance, to drop out of the public discourse without a word of explanation about its outcome.
The Al Qaeda threat closing in on Israel’s borders from the north, south and east is added to the list of undetermined and unspecified issues.
3. For two weeks now, Israelis have been clamoring for an authoritative definition of the Gaza operation’s goals. The prime minister has left this question hanging vaguely in the air, an invitation to members of his own government to publicly air their clashing views on the subject.
As they struggle under the strain of day-and-night rocket attacks, people are additionally burdened by the sense of being left at sea.
The hastily-cobbled ceasefire lasted three hours
Among the politicians making hay from the atmosphere of uncertainty in the prime minister’s office are his coalition partners, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Industry and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, and three members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, and Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar.
The latter three pushed this week to transfer responsibility for conducting the Gaza operation from the inner security and policy committee to the full cabinet. This was tantamount to an internal vote of no-confidence in Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis and a bid to dilute his power to control it – an unheard-of step against a prime minister in mid-battle along Israel’s long history of military conflict.
4. The IDF hit a bad scene on June 13, the fifth day of Operation Defensive Edge, due to an intelligence failure (which is dealt with in a separate article in this issue).
All these setbacks encouraged Netanyahu to clutch at straws – anything for a quick fix.
It was found in Cairo Tuesday, July 14. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi offered his good offices to mediate the conflict between Israel and Hamas, starting with a ceasefire going into effect the next morning.
So hastily was this plan cobbled together, that President El-Sisi and Prime Minister Netanyahu neglected to clear it with the key players.
They put it before US Secretary of State John Kerry, but omitted to seek the concurrence of President Barack Obama, Iranian leaders, the heads of the Hamas’ military wing, the Izz e- Din al-Qassam Brigades, or its partner, Islamic Jihad.
Not surprisingly, the 9:00 A.M. ceasefire survived less than three hours.
Obama stays out of Gaza diplomacy – and plays into Iran’s hands
Obama’s reluctance to get involved in yet another Middle East imbroglio is understandable. He carefully whisked Kerry out of the way before he got caught up in another unfortunate venture. The US president was also loath to providing Tehran with another lever for use in the nuclear talks limping along between the six powers and Iran in Vienna. Iran’s patronage of the Palestinian radical groups Hamas and Jihad Islami is no secret.
In fact, Washington was tipped off by intelligence that Iran had ordered Islamic Jihad to keep up the rocket fire and ignore any ceasefire deals, knowing that Hamas would follow suit.
Washington had also been advised that the trickle of rocket fire from Syria and Lebanon into the Golan, Upper Galilee and Western Galilee from Friday, July 11, was orchestrated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-GC, a splinter Palestinian group commanded by Ahmad Jibril, which is essentially an arm of the Iranian Al Qods Brigades and their commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Given the high nuclear stakes, Obama, who has shunned the mix in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, certainly does propose to be sucked into taking Iran on in the Gaza Strip.
And so, with no real backing from his allies, the publicity-shy Netanyahu’s bid for closure of the Gaza war by diplomacy proved an all-too-public failure.