The decision of the Winograd Committee not to publish personal conclusions, in order to speed up the completion of its final report and publish it before the end of this year, was a convenient way out of the legal and political mess it got itself into.
The committee may not have any other choice to save whatever is left of its public standing.
Three things have led to the Winograd Committee's loss of relevance. First, its agreement to send warning letters threatened to drag out meetings endlessly, and to turn the final report into a moldy, historical document.
Second, the Air Force's actions in Syria and the mystery surrounding it have created the impression that Olmert and his cabinet have improved the decision-making process regarding military operations, and have learned to think and consider their actions instead of shooting from the hip. The lack of leaks and severe censorship reinforced this image.
Third, and most important, the public atmosphere has changed and the Second Lebanon War has dropped off the agenda. At the opening of the Knesset's winter session this week, none of the speakers mentioned the war. Not even in the interjections that interrupted the prime minister's speech.
Benjamin Netanyahu actually talked a lot about Lebanon, but he attacked Ehud Barak's unilateral withdrawal - not Olmert's irresponsible war.
The investigative committee is not a criminal court required to determine the facts of the case beyond a reasonable doubt. It is also not a history seminar. According to the law dealing with investigative commissions, the committee's role is to deal with "a matter of critical public interest that requires investigation at that time." (While the Winograd Committee was appointed under the legal auspices of the law relating to the cabinet and not the law concerning investigative commissions, it still has the authority of such a committee, and that is the way the public views it.)
The law takes into account the timeliness factor and the public interest, but if the investigation takes more and more time, even the parliamentary opposition loses interest, and the committee loses its main reason for existence.
The Winograd Committee needed to strike while the iron was still hot, and to publish its personal recommendations in the interim report it made in April. The interest in personal conclusions does not stem from a public desire for blood, or even from the media frenzy for juicy headlines that retired judge Eliyahu Winograd so detests.
There is a "critical public interest" to the question of whether the military and the government are led by worthy leaders and commanders. If the public ship is entrusted to those who failed, the committee is required to replace them. And this was the biggest disappointment of the Winograd Committee. The partial report on the decision to go to war that the committee published was so serious that the committee could have called for the ouster of the prime minister without waiting to examine the ensuing stages of the war. But Winograd and his committee blinked, and along with the harsh criticism that they leveled against Olmert, they also published a circuitous and murky explanation of the term "individual responsibility"; and wavered tortuously over the question of personal conclusions.
"In exceptional and important cases, the committee is authorized, and even required, not to settle for [general] conclusions but to add to them specific, personal recommendations," the preliminary report said. What could possibly be more important or exceptional than Olmert's hasty decision to go to war?
And if that does not justify specific personal recommendations, then what does?
The committee justifiably demanded that the cabinet make clear and informed decisions - but the committee is itself hiding behind a screen of confusing phrasing and is avoiding determining whether Olmert needs to go.
This is how the committee is betraying the public that is entitled to know the truth of whether the prime minister is qualified for his job or not. By delaying its decision until the final report, the committee signaled that Olmert should continue, but left him in the position of a suspect whose decisions and actions are all tricks to keep himself in power. That makes it hard to lead a country or conduct sensitive diplomatic negotiations.
Olmert's problems with the Winograd Committee are not over yet. Barak is likely to use the final report, even without any personal conclusions, as the lever to break up the government. But if he does so, it will be out of Barak's desire to advance his own interests, and not because of Olmert's war. It is doubtful this was the purpose of the "committee to investigate the events of the war in Lebanon in 2006."
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