In 1963, Earl Warren, then chief justice of the United States, refused to chair an investigative commission into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, out of respect for the separation of powers. He only changed his mind in response to President Lyndon Johnson's threat that if he persisted in his refusal, the world would never believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone assassin. Instead, suspicions of Soviet involvement, or Cuban involvement at the Soviets' behest, would grow, tensions would rise, nuclear war would break out and, according to the Pentagon's calculations, 60 million Americans would be killed in the first strike. If Warren believed his high-minded refusal justified such a price, so be it.
The mission assigned to Eliyahu Winograd, when he was appointed last September to head the committee that bears his name, was more modest: giving Ehud Olmert's government a few more months in power. Israeli governments, when faced with public pressure, have a tendency to investigate themselves rather than their predecessors (the sole exception being the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff; that investigation was meant to erase the stain on a particular political movement). The clock chimed midnight, the mission was accomplished, and the time has come for Olmert to vacate the post he was never suited to fill. Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, a mere month or two after his ouster from his beloved Tourism Ministry, this week pulled out the tired cliche "don't put the cart before the horse" to explain his insistence on remaining in Olmert's stable. But when you want the horses to go backward without balking like mules, the cart does have to be put in front of them.
Had Shimon Peres remained in the Labor Party following his loss to Amir Peretz, restraining his characteristic arrogance and contenting himself with the number two slot, he would already be leading a government, at least in rotation with Tzipi Livni. Peres would have formed a united front with the Pensioners Party (in exchange for promising Rafi Eitan control over the Mossad) and Meretz (he told the Winograd Committee that he is "of the left"), thereby achieving numerical parity with Kadima, and asked Acting President Dalia Itzik to give him first shot at forming a government.
Ami Ayalon is too inexperienced to pull together such a move, and Ehud Barak is not a Knesset member, so Olmert's position will be inherited by Kadima. But the focus on the identity of the prime minister - designed to frighten the public into thinking Benjamin Netanyahu would be a possible successor - attributes exaggerated importance to a single individual. The prime minister bears great, but not decisive, responsibility. He can be, as a general once described the chief of staff, "head and shoulders above," "first among equals" or "head and shoulders below." And unlike the army, which requires a clear and uniform chain of command, Israeli governments are ruled by teams. Excessive focus on the team leader leads to permanent disappointment with him and weakens the group, even though the individuals who compromise this group - their platforms and their performances as ministers of defense, finance and justice - affect the state and the citizenry no less than the prime minister does.
The American presidential model is not applicable to Israel. In its purest form, it is a two-headed system: the president versus Congress, the executive versus the legislature. The British system is closer to ours. The quality of a ruling party is measured in part by its ability to depose a failed or weakened party leader in favor of a more competent or fresher alternative, even if the replacement is not the person the voters elected. Tony Blair, who won the elections, is leaving, and Gordon Brown will replace him.
On the Winograd Committee, all members are equal. The government of Israel is also a committee. And the need to replace the prime minister is more important than the riddle of his successor.