Trade Insights, Not Barbs

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s report on Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014, which found fault in the military’s conduct, as well as in the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet’s decision-making process ahead of and during the campaign, stirred controversy for obvious reasons: Those who were criticized want to defend their reputations, while others are eager to use the findings to settle political scores, leaving Israelis to wonder how such a grand series of “failures” has resulted in two and a half years of quiet in southern Israel.

I cannot comment on the cabinet’s work process, as at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I headed a committee that formulated recommendations on how that process could be improved. And while my report is not classified, I think it more prudent to present it to the cabinet before discussing it in public.

Nevertheless, two issues can be illustrated, as they do not stem from the committee’s work: The first has to do with the cabinet members’ level of knowledge, and the second has to do with the cabinet’s ability to hold effective discussions.

On the level of knowledge cabinet members have on matters of national security: I have been participating in cabinet meetings since 1992, in my capacity as director of research with Military Intelligence, and I have learned that it is difficult to overcome the discrepancies in the ministers’ knowledge. Most of them are preoccupied with the affairs of their offices for many hours of the day, and few have any knowledge or training in dealing with national security issues.

I believe it would be best to designate two ministers without portfolio to the cabinet solely for the purpose of being kept appraised of such matters, to ensure that at any given time at least two ministers are well-prepared for any cabinet meeting. These two ministers, who would have to be experienced people, would also be able to serve as a balancing factor against other ministers who are responsible for specific issues, as well as the relevant professional bodies.

The claim that having two ministers serve in such cabinet roles would “cost money” is dwarfed by the benefit this move entails for the entire forum.

As for the cabinet’s ability to hold effective discussions: Previous prime ministers often put together a small forum of individuals with whom they could hold informal consultations.

Not long ago, there was the eight-minister forum, dubbed “the octet,” who served under Netanyahu until the 2013 elections. The secret to this highly effective forum’s success was the fact that its discussions were leak-free, as well as minutes-free.

If the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet cannot maintain the absolute discretion required of its sessions, it has no hope of functioning properly. This is not about politics, and it makes no difference who the prime minister is — any prime minister would be unable to work with a leaking cabinet.

Sounding the alarm

Everything else aside, we would be wise to focus on implementing the comptroller’s findings and the conclusions following the Gaza campaign to improve the way future conflicts are managed, instead of bickering and assigning blame.

One of the main issues underscored in Shapira’s report was that the military, despite having all the necessary information, failed to outline a proper operational plan to counter the threat posed by Hamas’ grid of terror tunnels. This was a fundamental failure, but one for which the solutions are already being implemented.

Truth be told, the IDF faced a very similar situation in 1973: The military had information about Syria’s arsenal of Sagger anti-tank missiles, including from incidents when IDF tanks came under Sagger fire in the Golan Heights. In the Yom Kippur War, however, the IDF was taken by surprise and had no solution to the threat. It failed to develop technological countermeasures, and the results on the battlefield were dire.

At the time, the question of why the military was not prepared to counter a clear and known threat rose with all its gravity. It appears that this is a known phenomenon — when the facts are known, but the conclusions evident from the information are not drawn or their significance is not fully grasped by the organization, and therefore it fails to devise the proper answer.

To overcome this issue after the Yom Kippur War, the military decided to name an officer, holding the rank of colonel, whose job was to “sound the alarm” whenever it seems the enemy was developing a new threat. He was the one tasked with ensuring all relevant operational systems were aware of the threat and working on countermeasures.

After a while it became evident the role was redundant, or so the General Staff believed at the time, and it was annulled. I’m not sure creating that role was the best solution for the problem at hand, but it was a valid attempt to deal with it in a practical way. It is again time to look for a solution, so that the IDF does not fail in the same manner in the future.

One must note, however, that no one expected then-Prime Minister Golda Meir to devise a tactical and operational response to the Sagger threat. That clearly fell to the defense establishment.

Understanding that the various challenges must be dealt with in a scaled manner is essential for the system’s proper functioning across the board. If the cabinet is busy outlining operational tactics, it will clearly have less time to outline strategy.

Opting for a tactical approach over a strategic one may be useful when dealing with a specific incident, but it undermines the greater objective of military campaigns or full-scale wars. Both call for meticulously maintaining the proper division of roles: The military must focus on tactical and operational issues, and the defense minister must provide the IDF with the necessary tools to devise and apply solutions, while prioritizing the objectives formulated by the prime minister and approved by the cabinet.

The cabinet’s main contribution to the process is on a strategic level, so its members cannot be distracted by other things, interesting as they may be. For the same reason, the military should not concern itself with politics — it cannot be distracted by such things as it has to remain focused on the tactical and operational issues.

As for the comptroller’s report: It is important that the blame game ends, as it helps nothing and no one. All this energy should be focused on bolstering the weak points evident in Operation Protective Edge’s execution.

Originally appeared in Hebrew in Israel Hayom on March 3, 2017 and also at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies on March 8, 2017.