The growing tumult around the Winograd Committee's report has brought to a new zenith the cynical manipulation of public opinion: The public is being blatantly and unfairly affected in ways that are meant to manipulate its attitude to the committee's findings even before these are published. In circumstances created by the committee, it granted the general public the status of a jury authorized to determine the political fate of the prime minister. But instead of allowing the jury to meet behind closed doors, to read carefully the findings of the investigation and to render a judgement based on them, the defendant and his defense team, on the one hand, and the prosecutor and his witnesses on the other, are treating them like a mob in the hippodrome, whose emotions can be stirred and whose opinion can be twisted through the untraceable work of spin doctors.
Setting the tone is Ehud Olmert. The prime minister has controlled the process of examining his conduct in July-August 2006 throughout. He rejected the demand for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry. He decided on the appointment of the Winograd Committee. He selected its members. He announced that he would not resign as a result of its findings, whatever they may be. And he is now engineering the public response, through leaks and briefings to the press that are meant to establish the view that there is no reason to replace him.
In a less brutal political environment the prime minister would have waited for the release of the report before responding to it. But Israel today is ruled by the culture of spin, which drives Olmert to strike a preemptive blow on public opinion in order to convince the public in advance that the demand that he vacate his seat is unjustified.
This move is supposed to make the Winograd report redundant; the debate over whether or not Olmert should resign was ignited as soon as the cease-fire went into effect after 34 days of fighting in the Second Lebanon War. It is now being conducted with no relation to the findings of the committee, which are still unknown. Instead of allowing the committee's conclusions to speak for themselves, Olmert has prepared a mold for them, which he has already presented to the public so he can pour the insight of the committee members into the shape he wants them to take.
Olmert is not the only player. He faces an equally experienced spinmeister, MK Benjamin Netanyahu. He too, in advance of reading the report, is pulling strings and creating a media buzz to blacken Olmert's image and present him as being unqualified to run the affairs of state. Political cronies and other interested parties are siding with the Likud leader, some (such as the bereaved families and army reservists) for legitimate reasons, and others who are just cynically riding the wave. The seriousness of the issue at hand - the war and its victims - has not deterred these groups from using public relations gimmicks to rally support. In today's Israel, even the authentic cries of bereaved parents or concerned army officers cannot but be put through the machinations of media consultants and advertising copywriters. Tactless.
The media ruckus prior to the Winograd report's release is primarily the result of a decision by the committee to avoid offering conclusions and recommendations regarding individual members of the country's civilian and military leadership. The committee chose this approach because of legal and administrative exigencies as well as its view of itself as a fact-finding body that allows the general public to reach its own conclusions. In principle this is the correct approach: It is best to let the public decide whether the prime minister is qualified to continue rather than making a decision on the basis of what five people say. But in the Israeli reality this is a purist approach that fails to take into account sufficiently the rules of the game. There are democratic societies in which the moral compass guiding public figures dictates that they resign for failings that are much more minor than those exposed by the Winograd Committee's interim report. Israeli society today needs an external guide - for example, an examining committee comprised of trustworthy public figures - that could present it (and its leaders) with the correct measure of proper conduct.
It would seem that the Winograd Committee failed in such a task.
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