That headline must be read literally. According to Benjamin Netanyahu, responsibility lies with the prime minister. But that's not to say the prime minister believes that Netanyahu is responsible. Netanyahu's ideas of responsibility changed somewhat between his testimony to the Winograd Committee on January 11, 2007 and his current attempts to evade responsibility for the Carmel fire disaster.
Yesterday's appeal to the attorney general by two retired police majors general, Ze'ev Even Chen and Haim Klein, who asked him to open a criminal investigation of Netanyahu and the defense, finance and interior ministers in connection with the fire, constitutes a new front in the public war against Netanyahu. The personal loss suffered by Even Chen and Klein, the father and father-in-law, respectively, of fire victim Topaz Even Chen Klein, as well as the men's professional background as police officers, will make it hard for Netanyahu to dismiss their request.
Joining Klein and Even Chen in the battle is Maj. Gen. (res. ) Alik Ron, the former commander of two other victims of the fire. As northern district police commander during the October 2000 riots, when 13 Arabs were apparently killed by police officers, Ron was a focus of the Or Commission's investigation of those events. As a political hopeful, almost certainly in Kadima, he will not allow the country's political leadership to foist responsibility for the latest disaster onto the professionals.
While Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein grapples with issues of personal accountability, Netanyahu is trying to prevent the appointment of a state commission of inquiry. Opponents claim it would be superfluous to create such a forum, on the grounds that its conclusions are obvious and its only purpose would be to make heads roll. But that purpose is a fitting one: All heads must be aware that they can roll if they fail to do their jobs. And while "government by inquiry commission" does not conform to the pure ideals of representative government, it is the only form of government that can call the responsible ministers to order, and is thus the only effective threat to Israel's elected politicians.
If a commission of inquiry is impaneled, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch will be responsible for determining its composition. Since she is just 14 months from retirement, Beinisch is unlikely to appoint herself as its head. The most likely candidate is Justice Edna Arbel, though Beinisch might go with a retired judge who is not already burdened with a heavy case load. In that case, the leading candidate is Justice Eliyahu Mazza.
Netanyahu will need his best verbal gymnastics in order to explain to investigators why he has backtracked from the pronouncements he made to the Winograd Committee about the prime minister's responsibility. In retrospect, these statements are self-incriminating.
"The responsibility of the one in charge falls on the prime minister," Netanyahu told the committee in response to a question about the defense minister's responsibility for the failures of the Second Lebanon War. Referring to his previous experience as prime minister, he added, "the main decisions about policy changes came from me as prime minister, because I saw my responsibility as being an active rather than a passive agent, as setting policy."
Netanyahu might, of course, claim that the failures that led to the Carmel fire disaster were not military in nature, but that's a shaky defense in light of the loss of human life and the obvious implications that the weaknesses exposed in this disaster have for coping with a military attack on Israel's civilian population.
Netanyahu presumably still realizes that the buck stops with the prime minister. The question is, who will finally make him pay the bill?
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