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Vice Premier Shimon Peres has a wise little story that is an eye-opener. In the 1950s, he likes to recount, Natan Alterman lived in a noisy key money apartment in the center of Tel Aviv. One day, Defense Ministry director general Peres came to him and said that it was not appropriate for the state poet to live in such a miserable apartment. At then prime minister David Ben-Gurion's behest, the director general offered the poet the opportunity to move to a handsome single-family home in one of the new neighborhoods that the Defense Ministry had established at that time for senior career army officers. Alterman refused. Don't worry, Peres said to him, the fact that you received a villa from us will not prevent you from writing against us. That's not the problem, replied Alterman. The problem is that if I accept a villa from you, I won't be able to write anything good about you.

The members of the Winograd Commission have not understood what Alterman understood: They have agreed to accept a villa from the government. They have not acceded to calls not to participate in the great exercise of whitewashing the war failures, and they have consciously prevented the establishment of a state commission of inquiry. They have agreed to be part of a lineup that lacks the supreme normative authority of the commissions on which Yigal Yadin, Haim Laskov and Justices Shimon Agranat, Moshe Landau, Aharon Barak and Meir Shamgar sat.

The members of the Winograd Commission have agreed to put themselves into the unworthy situation of investigators appointed by those who are being investigated, and of being under the aegis of an establishment body that is neither independent nor free of extraneous considerations. They have held sociable meetings with the people being investigated - i.e. the people who appointed them; that makes one wonder. They have chosen as their secretary an activist in the ruling party, which they are supposed to investigate. They have put themselves into the trap that Alterman spared himself: Instead of being a supreme moral court that can offer cleansing, which Israel needs at the end of this traumatic summer, they have made themselves into an institution that arouses suspicion and controversy, and on whose shoulders lies a heavy burden of proof.

This is a pity. The members of the Winograd Commission are highly qualified and respectable, and for that very reason, they ought to realize the serious mistakes that they have made and the impossible situation into which they have put themselves. They must acknowledge that they are serving as an anesthetic, by means of which a failed establishment is trying to numb a public that has been awakened from a long coma by the shock of the summer, which has caused it to ask probing questions. Which has caused it to realize that Israel's existential situation necessitates peak alertness and a national housecleaning.

Now, therefore, the Winograd Commission members are left with only a single option: They are not obligated to come out sharply against the establishment that is trying to make despicable use of them - but they must prove immediately that they are not subordinate to this establishment. That they are not intimidated and that they are not biased. They must prove immediately that they are the judges of the establishment rather than its subordinates, and they must demonstrate through deeds that the commission can overcome the blemishes inflicted on it by the circumstances of its establishment. They must demonstrate actively that even though the commission was born in sin, it is capable of purifying itself, purifying the system and leading Israel to a new path.

Judge Eliyahu Winograd, Yehezkel Dror, Haim Nagel, Menachem Einan and Ruth Gavison are now facing the most important moment of their public lives. Nothing that they have done in the past comes close in importance to what they are about to do now. No professional achievement that they might attain in the future will be able to atone for a crucial mistake made now. If the High Court of Justice does not rule otherwise, the coming months will allow them to impress their seal on the state.

Therefore, they must maintain supreme concentration and utter focus - which did not characterize the national leadership during the war. They must evince courage, clear thinking and devotion - which did not guide the national leadership during the course of the war. They will have to acquire the trust of the public, which has lost its trust in all the official bodies, and also in them.

It is possible that the summer of 2006 will be remembered as a brief, bad dream. Syria will be deterred, Hezbollah will be smashed and Iran will harness all of its resources to advance nuclear medicine. But it is also possible that within a relatively short time, Israel will be challenged once again. If that happens, this pleasant autumn will be remembered as the autumn between the wars. As the autumn when Israel was given a rare opportunity to organize and prepare itself anew before a calamity.

History will not forgive the members of the Winograd Commission if, in this fateful autumn, they fail to rise above themselves, and instead fall asleep on their watch and betray their mission.