Deja Vu All Over Again

When Lindenstrauss began his probe on Israel's attempts to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, he was predictably ridiculed: What could he possibly say that was new? It turns out that an external probe can lead to new and surprising avenues to explore.

The state comptroller's report on Israel's efforts to secure the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, which came out last week, garnered little attention. The limited media coverage the report received stemmed partly from its genesis: It was commissioned as a political move by MK Zevulun Orlev, then chairman of the Knesset State Control Committee, with the intention of embarrassing the Olmert government while also proving to Pollard's followers, most of whom are right-wing, that the spy had not been forgotten. The limited limelight also stemmed from restrictions on publication. For reasons of state security (though really, to avoid another contretemps with the United States), State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss gave the press only a censored, three-page version of the full report.

But even in its restricted version, the report contains interesting conclusions, with implications that go beyond the Pollard affair. The state comptroller identified three problematic issues throughout the 23 years that Pollard has been imprisoned: First, at every discussion, only the prime minister's aides and advisers were present; not even a limited forum of ministers was ever established. Second, there was no reliable institutional memory: Discussions were not documented at all, and the lessons learned, if any, were passed on as "oral history" from one prime minister to another. And third, the leaders avoided involving outside experts.

Lindenstrauss' report included an expert opinion from Prof. Kenneth Mann, who believes that American law allows for Pollard to request a new trial, because his constitutional right to due process was violated. Whether Mann is right or not, the fact is that no such idea for cutting the Gordian knot has ever been examined. Not only did the state not consult legal experts from academia, but even justice ministers were never involved in discussions about Pollard.

When Lindenstrauss began his probe, he was predictably ridiculed: What could he possibly say that was new? It turns out that an external probe can lead to new and surprising avenues to explore.

Complaints about the lack of an organized process for examining and deciding among alternatives are not limited to the Pollard affair. The Winograd Commission devoted many pages of its report to describing the faulty reasoning and improvisation in which Israel became entangled during the Second Lebanon War. Israeli leaders have a long history of making fateful decisions in the blink of an eye, without properly studying the ramifications.

And today, how does the government handle issues like the Iranian nuclear program or the purchase of next-generation fighter jets? Is all the relevant data now passed on from one leader to the next? We are assured that discussions in the so-called forum of six - the Netanyahu government's most senior ministers - are serious and profound.

But Israelis' cumulative experience requires us to at least be skeptical. The thought that "somebody up there must know what he's doing" usually proves false. He doesn't.

Even on Iran, Ehud Olmert suggested that insufficient preparations were made during Ariel Sharon's term to develop a military option against Tehran's nuclear facilities. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's adviser Uzi Arad claimed that previous governments left scorched earth behind on this issue. So is everything all right now?

The coming year will present Netanyahu and his senior ministers with a dilemma whose importance cannot be overstated. The Iranian issue is far more complicated than a localized matter like Pollard's release. One must be quite an optimist to believe that next time around, things will be different - that next time, the most important of all, everything will be properly planned and implemented.