It's no wonder that with the conclusion of the testimonies to the Turkel Committee by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, some people argue that the panel has exceeded its mandate in investigating the Gaza flotilla affair. They're right, but that's good for Israeli democracy, which is based on the belief that the public has the right to information about the activities of its leaders and their failures.
The government set up the panel as an "independent public committee," but in practice it was entirely dependent on the government's goodwill. Its "non-mandate" of June 14 entrusted it to act as a kind of council of wise men to examine the conformity under international law of the naval blockade of Gaza and its enforcement. It did not have the authority to make demands or conduct an investigation.
On July 4, the committee was transformed into a governmental investigative committee according to the law on the government. It also received investigatory powers, with the limitation that the chief of staff was the only military figure who could be questioned. Despite this authority, the committee did not have a serious mandate. Investigation of the political leaders' preparations before the flotilla arrived - the main question of interest to Israelis - is beyond the committee's mandate, as if a warning sign had been posted telling the committee what it could not do.
The committee didn't hesitate to rip the sign down. The English say a committee is like a train without a locomotive that sometimes runs off the rails. The Turkel Committee has indeed run off the narrow rails the government laid before it, but the panel did what it needed to do. Its pointed questions to the star witnesses proved that it is a force to be reckoned with. The committee made clear that it would not be doing its duty if it did not uncover the political leaders' actions and how they prepared for the flotilla's arrival.
The prime minister and defense minister preferred to speak of "overall responsibility," which involves ministerial responsibility of sorts, but not personal responsibility. Apparently they didn't note that committees that investigate and examine public issues do not deal with ministers' responsibility for the acts of their underlings.
Such committees look into personal responsibility by officeholders for their acts and omissions. The remarks by Barak, who shifted some of the responsibility to Ashkenazi, pose the same dilemma for the Turkel Committee that the Agranat Commission faced in investigating the Yom Kippur War.
That commission absolved the defense minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, of personal responsibility in the belief that he acted reasonably, in accordance with the "gravity of the responsibility" entrusted to him. On the other hand, the Agranat Commission found the chief of staff, David Elazar, personally responsible.
The Agranat Commission erred in not considering Dayan's special status in military affairs, sufficing with the view that the defense minister was not by law considered a second, senior chief of staff. The Turkel Committee can help develop constitutional-governmental law if it clarifies what is required of Barak with his special status as "Mr. Defense" and from whom expectations - and his personal responsibility - are high.
To perform its mission, the five men of the Turkel Committee, whom it is hoped will be joined by suitable women members, also need to hear from the IDF's chief military prosecutor, the commander of the Israel Navy and perhaps also the intelligence chief.
In addition, the committee cannot finish its job without examining relevant reports, including reports from previous investigative and examining committees that laid down the principles on political leaders' responsibility as well as the expertise and professional capabilities required by the people who carry out policy.
The report by the Winograd Commission on the Second Lebanon War included a detailed analysis of failures by both the government and the military; it also presented standards that remain an appropriate basis for evaluating conduct. At this stage, during which the panel is clarifying the facts, the Turkel Committee should be praised for pursuing its own flotilla of truth. The true test for the committee would come in an interim report, which it would be appropriate to issue, and in its final report.
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