Analysis: How the IDF stalled a Cast Lead inquiry

By Anshel Pfeffer, October 29, 2009

From the moment the Goldstone Report was published a month ago, accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza, the IDF kept mum.

Reporters who called the IDF Spokesman Unit for a response were given a standard answer: “This is a matter for the Foreign Ministry, don’t ask us.”

“We had to draw a line here,” said a senior IDF officer. “The government sent the army to carry out a mission in Gaza, to stop the terrorists firing rockets on Sderot and the kibbutzim, and we did just that, at a minimal cost to our forces. Now that the IDF is being attacked by international organisations, it is the government’s job to defend the IDF.”

Despite having the largest press operation in the Israeli establishment, the IDF has stuck ever since to this none-of-our-business line.

But the moment ministers began suggesting that the best way to ward off the Goldstone Report was a judicial inquiry, which would prevent any international legal proceedings, the IDF’s top brass made their views very clear behind the scenes. Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi did not mince words, appearing at the cabinet and telling the ministers that they would be blamed for leaving the soldiers and officers out in the cold.

We have to break the cycle where every war is followed by an inquiry

Unlike many of his predecessors, General Ashkenazi has been careful not to meddle in political affairs. His intervention in this case stunned the cabinet. A sizable number of ministers were at first in favour of a committee of inquiry, as were most of the legal advisers.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak also leaned towards a commission, but Ashkenazi set them right and they backed down. Both realised how the army’s spin doctors would make it look to the public. The most they could do was to appoint a limited committee to review the IDF’s investigations.

Senior army sources insist that they have nothing to hide and that the IDF’s internal investigations had been carried out impeccably.

“We have to break this vicious circle where every war and major operation is automatically followed by a commission of inquiry,” says an adviser to General Ashkenazi. “If not, no officer will be able to operate under fire, he will be thinking the whole time how to cover himself from the next commission and consulting his lawyers.”

The IDF was hauled before commissions of inquiries following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 and the Second Lebanon War three years ago. But in those cases, the public felt let down by the IDF and demand to know what had happened rose from the streets.

Operation Cast Lead has been seen by most Israelis as a resounding success. Hamas was smashed, the rocket firing stopped and the casualties, 10 dead soldiers, relatively light. A recent poll showed that the IDF is the most popular part of the Israeli establishment, by a wide margin. A judicial probe could reverse that popularity.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010