Middle East

Calls for accountability grow over October 7 failures, but Israel’s leadership is unlikely to act

Analysis by Oren Liebermann and Tamar Michaelis, CNN

CNN  —  The anger across the streets of Israel has reached a new crescendo, with tens of thousands joining protests billed as a “week of disruption.” Anti-government demonstrators have blocked major highways, staged walkouts, and called for a general strike.

The protesters have not one but several demands: a hostage deal, new elections, military conscription for ultra-Orthodox Jews, more attention to residents of the north and more. Across Israel, signs on buildings and highways call for “Elections Now!” and declare alongside pictures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “You are the leader; you are to blame.”

But underneath them all lies one question which continues to echo across Israel eight months after October 7: How could the most advanced military in the region, with its vaunted intelligence apparatus, have failed so completely in foreseeing the Hamas terror attack?

Calls for a state commission of inquiry into the security and intelligence failures that led to October 7 have grown continually louder, with the Israeli public, opposition lawmakers, the parents of slain and captive Israel Defense Forces (IDF) field observers, and the attorney general demanding an investigation into the deadliest single event in the country’s history.

Analysts say it’s not likely to happen under Netanyahu, however. And if it does, it may not yield the answers for which the country is searching, even as more reports come out about what Israel knew in advance.

On Monday, Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan 11, added to the growing mountain of evidence that the country’s leadership could have – or, at the very least, should have – known an attack was possible.

Palestinian children search through the rubble of their home a day after an operation by Israeli Special Forces in the Nuseirat camp, in the central Gaza Strip, on June 9, 2024.

Kan 11 detailed a document from Unit 8200, the IDF’s premier intelligence gathering division, about Hamas’ plans to attack military facilities and communities, and to take between 200 and 250 hostages. The document was dated September 19, 2023, less than three weeks before the October 7 attack. It was especially startling in its accuracy on one particular point: Hamas took 250 hostages.

The latest allegations add weight to reports in November from the New York Times and Haaretz newspapers that military intelligence had information about Hamas plans to overwhelm Israel’s fortifications around Gaza, allowing militants to stream into southern Israel.

In December, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman announced he would open an investigation into intelligence failures before the October 7 Hamas attack. Months later, struggling to get cooperation from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Israeli military, Englman wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office and the IDF chief of staff that his duty was “to carry out a comprehensive audit of the greatest failure in the country’s history.”

But this week, Israel’s High Court put the investigation on hold after reviewing classified arguments from security agencies – prompting an exasperated Englman to ask if his teams should “put a up a sign ‘we’re on a break, will be back in two years’?”

Separately, the IDF launched a series of internal investigations earlier this year into the failures leading up to October 7, followed by more limited examinations of individual battles on the day of the attacks. These probes would allow Israel to learn from its failures, even in an ongoing war. The first results are expected to be published in the coming weeks.

What’s missing is Israel’s most powerful investigative tool – a state commission of inquiry – stymied by Netanyahu and his allies, who have tried to delay it until after the war. A state commission of inquiry is an independent body with broad powers, including the ability to compel witnesses to testify.

But the primary means of launching such a commission is a government decision, and this government has made clear it’s not anywhere on their current agenda

Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, a professor of public policy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says “the likelihood of an inquiry is very, very low.”

“Over 17 years of Netanyahu governments, we had zero number of inquiries,” Sulitzeanu-Kenan says. Historically, Israel has had a public inquiry roughly every two years, he says, but not under its present and longest-serving leader. The purchase of German submarines and surface vessels sparked an inquiry in 2022, but only during Netanyahu’s 18-month spell out of office.

“Although it is very clear that one should be appointed, the political likelihood is almost zero under the current government,” says Sulitzeanu-Kenan. “Once you appoint a public inquiry, you send at least an implicit message that something wrong has happened.”

Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the Lebanese village of Jebbain on May 25, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters.

In June, Israel’s attorney general said that a commission of inquiry was the “most appropriate legal means” to investigate the circumstances leading up to the October 7 attack. According to Gali Baharav-Miara, the inquiry could also supersede investigations from “international tribunals,” a reference to the International Court of Justice, which is probing Israel for potential war crimes committed during its war in Gaza.

But Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary responded that the country was “in the midst of an intense war.”

“The time is not yet ripe to investigate all the events of the war and what preceded it,” wrote Yossi Fuchs in response to Baharav-Miara.

State commissions of inquiry can also take a tremendous amount of time, especially if there are questions of systemic failure mixed with issues of personal responsibility, said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank.

“When you intertwine all (of) them together, you probably might end up with nothing,” Plesner said. The most likely means of understanding the failures of October 7 was by dissecting it into smaller and more manageable issues, he said, like separating intelligence failures from those of operational doctrine.

“Given the complexity of the situation, the political interests involved, and the age of polarization that we live in, I’m not sure we’re ever going to have one recognized answer to this question,” said Plesner.

Netanyahu told CNN’s Dana Bash in November he would answer “all the questions that are required” and “this whole question will be addressed after the war.” His position has hardly shifted since, marked by the denial of any responsibility for the failures of October 7.

The refusal of Israel’s self-styled “Mr. Security” to take the blame stands in stark contrast to the IDF, where senior officers have resigned over the failure to stop the worst terror attack in the country’s history.

Major General Aharon Haliva, who was the commander of the IDF’s military intelligence, quietly announced in April that he would be stepping down. In the days after October 7, he admitted there was an “intelligence failure” in not detecting plans for the attack. Haliva became the first top official to accept responsibility for shortcomings, but not the last.

In June, the head of the IDF’s Gaza division, Brig. Gen. Avi Rosenfeld, also said he would resign. In a public letter, he said: “Everyone has to take responsibility for their part.” It is widely expected that other senior military officials will also step down on the conclusion of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, a member of Israel’s war cabinet until his resignation earlier this month, said everyone in a position of leadership needed to step down, including those in “(the IDF’s) Southern Command, the Military Intelligence Directorate, the IDF Chief of Staff, the head of the Shin Bet, the Defense Minister, the Prime Minister.”

Eisenkot told Israel’s Channel 12 news: “The failure is so great that none of them can stay in office.”

But with no clear end in sight to the war, that accountability is likely to be a long time coming.

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