Heads Rolled, but Findings Were Always Ignored

When retired Justice Dalia Dorner was selected to head the state inquiry probing assistance to Holocaust survivors, she announced that the commission would seek practical solutions, and not chop off heads. In addition, she said, the panel would look to the future and would try to submit its recommendations within three months. Dorner's statements might be considered a partial list of the faults of investigative commissions in Israel: They deal too much with placing blame, look too hard at the past and take too much time about it.

The president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), Prof. Arye Carmon, says that in looking back at past probes and examining what structural recommendations were implemented as opposed to seeking the removal from their posts of those responsible for failures, "the result is tragic." The most outstanding example is that not one of the structural recommendations of the Or Committee was implemented, he said, referring to the panel examining the fatal shooting of 13 Arabs during rioting in October 2000. "Meanwhile, some of the politicians and police officers were ousted," he said.

Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, internal security minister at the time of the shootings, who came under criticism from the Or Committee, notes that despite its recommendations, 20 Israeli Arabs have been shot to death by police since the events of October 2000. Ben-Ami says implementation of investigative panels "begins and ends at the personal level."

According to Carmon, investigative committees are "idols it is convenient to worship" and relieve the public of responsibility for democratic and political processes.

To former education minister Amnon Rubinstein, the investigative committee is part of what he calls the "judicialization of life in Israel."

Attorney Dori Klagsbald, author of the book "State Commissions of Inquiry," says, "instead of developing standards of the proper and improper, it is much easier to hand over the decision to a body headed by a judge."

Sixteen state commissions of inquiry have been impaneled since the State Inquiry Commission Law was passed in 1968. Fourteen were established by the government and two by the Knesset State Control Committee (the Beiski Committee probing the stock market crisis in the banks and the Dorner Committee on assistance to Holocaust survivors). On the average this means one inquiry committee every two and a half years.

Before 1968, investigative committees were established by virtue of an order from the days of the British Mandate. The first of these, in 1949, investigated the military parade on Independence Day, which never took place because the crowd burst onto the street. Three officers were dismissed as a result.

The status of such committees began to take off between the Agranat Commission, which looked into the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Kahan Commission, which investigated the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982. The Agranat inquiry raised the level of the focus on individual blame by recommending the dismissal of the chief of staff and two generals. However, the Kahan Commission was sharply criticized because it did not instruct that any political office holders be dismissed. The panel explained that "the question of the resignation of a member of the cabinet...is fundamentally clearly a political one, thus we believe we should not deal with it."

The Kahan Commission set a new norm for investigative activism when it recommended that then defense minister Ariel Sharon resign. Sharon refused, but was moved to the post of minister without portfolio. Since that time, investigative committees are perceived by the public as a means of ousting politicians and public figures. A probe that does not chop off heads, like the Winograd Committee, is considered a white-wash body.

Random investigation

Governments never want to establish committees of inquiry, certainly not state commissions of inquiry. In an article in the IDI's information center periodical, "Parliament," Dana Blander's survey of the history of attempts to avoid the establishment of state commissions of inquiry, revealed that the government did not want to establish a state probe on Sabra and Chatila, and instead attempted to establish a "clarification committee." The Kahan Commission was established as a result of public pressure.

Klagsbald sees "randomness" in what is investigated and what is not, the central element being the extent of public pressure. Ben-Ami says "the stronger the government is, the less the chance an investigative committee will be established." He says that is why a panel was established to study the events of October 2000, but not those of the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel exit, following which dozens of Palestinians and 16 Israeli soldiers were killed.

It seems that not only the public, but politicians as well see the advantage of an investigative committee. Meretz Chair MK Yossi Beilin calls them "a tool to put off the inevitable in a moment of distress."