In September 2006, the best lawyers in Israel were enlisted to help the then prime minister, defense minister and senior military officers avoid steps against them in wake of the Winograd Commission probe into the failures of the Second Lebanon War.
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As of now, the public is not likely to see any high-ranking security or political figures squirming in an effort to explain their responsibility for the failures of the summer of 2014, the delay in dealing with Hamas’ attack tunnels, the neglect of the home front and the failure to prevent missile strikes on Israel.
For the time being, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s forum of heads of subcommittees is in charge of probing the recent conflict in Gaza. However, being inherently political in nature, the rules of the game in the subcommittee forum favor the Israel Defense Forces and government officials.
“I don’t like this whole discussion in terms of hearing, testimony and investigations. I don’t present our work from this angle,” the committee chairman, MK Zeev Elkin (Likud), said.
According to Elkin, the subcommittee’s work is about learning lessons. “I don’t want officers to come before me with a lawyer and practice beforehand what to say and what not to,” he said, adding that the subcommittee does not decide “who will go to jail.”
MK Nachman Shai (Labor), an observer on the committee, has another explanation for the prime minister’s cooperation with Elkin’s panel. Shai says the probe is intended to “fill the air with sounds of investigation instead of a real probe. If people come to the prime minister with a demand for an outside body of a legal nature to investigate, he can say, ‘The state comptroller is probing, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is probing – how many more probes are needed?’”
Committee member MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) thinks the subcommittee is “political shady dealing,” and “a farce,” rather than an unbiased panel.
The opposition factions of Meretz and United Torah Judaism are not represented in the forum, and neither are Arab MKs – who are not members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to begin with – or women.
“The committee is scrutinizing the functioning of the government, when its chairman, Zeev Elkin, was until a few months ago a member of that same government as deputy foreign minister. He owes his appointment to Netanyahu and now he is scrutinizing him,” complained Shai.
However, the work the forum is tasked to do is not to be taken lightly. It is a small and compartmentalized body of about 12 MKs, some with experience in the area. For example, MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) – a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister – is a member. The prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief of staff and the heads of the Shin Bet security service appeared a number of times during Operation Protective Edge and gave an appraisal of the action.
In addition to material provided by these officials, the members of the committee also have minutes of meetings over the years that will tell them how the IDF dealt with the strengthening of Hamas, how the home front was prepared to deal with missile attacks, and why nothing was done to thwart the threat of the tunnels.
“We are the only ones with the historical narrative as it really was, and not through reconstruction,” Elkin said. “If an investigatory committee is established, it will summon witnesses who will say what happened in the past as seen today.”
According to the law, the various Knesset committees have almost no way of forcing officials to appear, testify, present documents or tell the whole truth.
During the past two Knesset terms, MK Yariv Levin (Likud), who is to replace Elkin as committee chairman in January, has been working on giving Knesset committees more clout in overseeing the executive branch. “As opposed to other parliaments, we cannot impose significant sanctions on officials who do not appear. We cannot make them bring materials and information; access to information in real time is problematic,” Levin said.
In contrast, in the United States people who refuse to appear before Congressional committees or produce required documents are liable to a fine of $1,000 or a year in prison. Perjury to a Congressional subcommittee can lead to a fine of $10,000 and five years in prison.
Levin notes that the Knesset research center does some of the work, but doesn’t monitor government ministries on an ongoing basis, and MKs do not have enough staff to obtain the information on their own.
Levin’s efforts to institute hearings in the Knesset House Committee on senior IDF and judicial appointments, as in the U.S. Congress, were roundly criticized, mainly for the power it gave politicians over the courts and the army.
The committee is also limited in terms of who it can call upon to appear – only officials of national and local government, religious councils or government corporations. The law also allows a minister to inform the committee that he or she will appear instead of the official originally invited, thus making it difficult for the committee to obtain firsthand information.
According to Levin, the enormous number of private members bills that are clogging the legislative pipes – 4,593 in the Knesset’s last term – reflect lawmakers’ efforts to influence the workings of government ministries, when Knesset committees with more bite could accomplish the same goal.
Elkin has found a creative way to force the army to cooperate with the committee’s work. “The army can’t blow off our decision. We have to approve its funding,“ he said.