Opinion: Israeli government passes the buck

Updated on

JERUSALEM — The present Israeli government seems to make a specialty of dropping the ball. The only thing the top ministers won’t drop is the buck. They’re very adept at passing that.

Testimony last week revealed the lack of responsibility at the top of the Israeli government. Before a committee investigating a fouled up military operation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have both said they take responsibility for the attempted takeover of a Turkish boat May 31 which left nine of the protesters aboard dead. Of course, they immediately added that “taking responsibility” doesn’t mean they were actually “responsible” for what happened.

That was someone else.

Netanyahu said it was Barak’s fault. Barak said it was the army’s fault, and also Netanyahu’s fault. On Aug. 11, the army chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, testified. He said he “takes responsibility” for the operation, and then argued that it wasn’t a failure. In fact he was “proud” of the soldiers who took control of the boat, which was steaming toward Gaza to break the Israeli blockade.

So that’s all cleared up then. Nobody was responsible for the failures of the raid. But the raid was also a good thing. Even if it did result in the broadest international vilification of Israel for some years.

Even the leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, says she wants to testify before the committee to “take responsibility” for the Gaza blockade, which was initiated while she was foreign minister in the previous government. The policy is good, she says, but Netanyahu isn’t running it correctly, which makes it look bad. So her taking of responsibility is also just a way of showing that someone else is responsible for the thing no one wants to take responsibility for.

When there’s so much talk of responsibility, it usually means somebody must have done something very irresponsible.

Netanyahu testified Aug. 9 before the committee, which is headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. He described the meeting of his seven “inner cabinet” members before the navy was given the green light to board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship sent toward Gaza by an Islamist organization called IHH. Netanyahu said the ministers mainly discussed the media consequences of a boarding party.

As it turned out, those media consequences were pretty bad. Even though Israel revealed photos of its soldiers being beaten by the “activists” on the boat, most coverage focused on the nine Turks who were shot by the soldiers’ comrades. The first soldiers had dropped from helicopters wearing clumsy gloves for sliding down the ropes and had been armed with paint-ball guns, so sure had they been that they’d face no resistance.

Who had responsibility for the mission, once the ministers gave it the go-ahead? Netanyahu was in no doubt (though the rest of his testimony was hesitant, and he even refused to answer a half dozen questions.) “I left instructions and asked the defense minister to activate me and the top ministers if necessary,” he said. “I wanted there to be one address here in Israel and he was that address.”

Barak appeared at the committee the next day. He took “full responsibility for the directives by the government,” but said the operation was botched because of the unpreparedness of the army, the navy and the Mossad intelligence service. Referring to an initial investigation into the incident by a former general, Barak said: “I only know what the Eiland report says.”

So obviously he’s not the “address.”

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Barak and Netanyahu are serial bunglers (a phrase coined by The Economist for Netanyahu during his previous term as prime minister) who can point to few achievements other than that they’ve both been unpopular prime ministers and both got rich on the U.S. lecture circuit, as well as trading on their names and connections to run “consulting companies.”

But the army is a very public institution in Israel, where a large proportion of youngsters serve, many others do reserve duty into their forties, and their failures redound greatly on the already rather shoddy image of the country around the world.

Generals themselves aren’t immune to buck passing. A scandal emerged last week when an Israeli television station reported that one of the generals who hopes to replace Ashkenazi as chief of staff had hired a public relations firm, which prepared a document that cast aspersions on the qualifications and qualities of his opponents. However, that general and the head of the PR firm deny responsibility for the document and suggest that it was one of the other generals in the running who doctored the papers to smear him.

An investigation has begun into that one. But don’t hold me responsible if its conclusions are opaque and meaningless.