Serial Blame Game

Both the premier and the defense minister appeared before the Turkel panel this week, both attempted to take responsibility for the flotilla screw-up - and both managed to make the other look bad

A tired citizen, worn out by the scorching August sun, looks out nowadays, and what does he see? A rudderless government that lacks any sense of direction, and whose leaders spend most of their time under investigation. Anyone who isn't being questioned just doesn't exist. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi testified this week to the Turkel Committee examining the May 31 army raid on the Gaza flotilla. Soon Netanyahu, Barak and others will be summoned by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss for another round of questioning on the same topic. And now the appointment process for the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff is also under investigation - in this case by police.

The meeting between Barak and Lindenstrauss and his staff will not be the first. Recently the defense minister was questioned about the transfer of funds to his daughters, which apparently came from business dealings that he conducted before Ehud Olmert gave him a ministerial portfolio.

Furthermore, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman awaits decisions in the never-ending investigation of his various cases, and Kadima party MK Tzachi Hanegbi is waiting for a ruling as to whether his recent conviction for perjury is going to be considered a crime of moral turpitude. This week, Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv that some 40 political appointments in the Prime Minister's Office are also under investigation by the State Comptroller.

One can only wonder about what passed through Netanyahu's mind when he sat down in front of Jacob Turkel's five-man panel, in the Gaza flotilla investigation. He had plenty of time to think about the caliber of the investigators. A few months ago he entrusted his justice minister, Yaakov "Yankele" Neeman, with the task of assembling a committee that would fit him like a glove, and Neeman came up with three elderly figures with diluted authority. Subsequently, the premier had to expand the committee, and confer new forms of authority upon it. In all probability, he did not lose much sleep even over these changes.

In the final stage of his career, after a forgettable term as a justice on the Supreme Court, Turkel has an opportunity to add his name to those of former justices Barak, Kahan, Shamgar, Agranat and Winograd - all of whom headed committees that affected policies and processes in the country. Sitting alongside Turkel are two associates from the original panel that was so mocked in the media. For them, too, their reputations are all they have at this point in their careers, reputations that they will want to salvage after they were trampled publicly.

One politician who noticed this week the lethal potential that the panel has was opposition head Tzipi Livni. The dust had not settled on the prime minister's testimony before Livni hastily fired off a letter to the committee, asking to testify about the "circumstances under which the blockade was imposed" on the Gaza Strip. In a press statement, she suggested, in contrast to Netanyahu who essentially dodged responsibility, that she will accept any responsibility that is hers. She also wants her role in the drama.

Netanyahu and Barak's assistants worked hard this week to defuse the politically explosive bombshells left by the pair's appearances before the panel. This crisis is atypical, both in regard to Barak and Netanyahu. Barak did not have any problem with Netanyahu's declaration that he had accorded his defense minister all responsibility for handling the operation designed to stop the boats. In fact, the minutes of the seven-man ministerial forum meeting on May 26 attribute to Barak the comment that, "The prime minister gave me responsibility for coordinating things."

Barak did, however, identify major problems with regard to the way the premier described the discussion by the forum. When he arrived the next day to testify, he was determined to set the record straight: He painted a picture utterly unlike that which Netanyahu depicted to the Turkel panel. Barak was happy to hear Eli Yishai, a member of the inner cabinet, support his side of the story in a television interview. The next day, Chief of Staff Ashkenazi basically reiterated Barak's version, according to which the political leadership discussed the naval operation, but the IDF botched the plan's implementation.

Barak's message was blunt: What I attested to is what happened in the seven-man forum meeting. Period. This is the point the defense minister also made this week during a private conversation devoted to the discrepancies between his testimony and Netanyahu's. That's the way Bibi's mind works, Barak said: He is a person who concentrates entirely on the diplomatic, public relations and media-related subjects. It's all a question of what you listen to, Barak went on. Bibi listens when such matters come up, but I am interested in the operational issues that must be decided upon.

Part PR, part GPO

When Barak presents Netanyahu as part minister of public relations and part head of the Government Press Office, it does not seem as if he is showing much admiration for the latter's performance as prime minister. Netanyahu mitigates the importance of Barak's interpretation. "Each person takes from the discussion whatever he takes," Netanyahu said on Wednesday. "That's not so unusual."

The media avalanche that buried Barak after his testimony ("He rolled the responsibility over to the IDF!" ) reflected hysteria. The minute the defense minister opens his mouth, broad sectors of the media pounce upon him. Study of his testimony reveals that he offered a realistically sober account of what happened prior to the naval raid, and of the mishaps that occurred during the operation.

Barak was reminded this week of the attempt to rescue schoolchildren during the Ma'alot terror attack in 1974. The Sayeret Matkal commando unit failed to meet its objectives, and the operation ended with the horrific deaths of a number of children and a stunned, demoralized country. Barak met then-defense minister Moshe Dayan afterward, outside of the school. "What happened to your glorious unit?" Dayan icily asked him. Dayan said that even an old man such as himself "would have carried out the mission more successfully." That operation, Barak recalled, did not prompt a commission of inquiry, nor did the state comptroller get involved. The dead were buried, and the army drew necessary conclusions and proceeded onward to other, more successful, operations.

It was not Netanyahu's intention to fob off responsibility onto Barak. He spent entire days, and a dress rehearsal, preparing to present himself as a leader who does not abdicate responsibility to his defense minister, or the army. His plan was to respond to the question "Who is responsible?" by saying that nobody is to blame, and that he is responsible. But the committee members asked him why he traveled to Canada not long before the flotilla was expected to arrive off Gaza. In reply, Netanyahu said that the night before his journey, he assigned responsibility for coordinating the relevant activities to the defense minister.

When Internet sites and radio stations seized upon this response, Netanyahu and his aides were sitting in a side room, waiting for his testimony behind closed doors to begin, and munching on snacks. Somebody sent frantic text messages to the premier's assistants. Netanyahu immediately phoned Barak and clarified what he meant. Barak said that everything was all right. Later, with the tempest still raging, Netanyahu headed to his office, after completing his testimony. He then left his office, traveled to the Knesset and stated there, in front of the cameras, that he alone bears responsibility.

When he delivered this clarification, Netanyahu appeared troubled, even tormented. In fact, the pain was caused not by the testimony, but rather by an infection caused by an ingrown toenail. He rushed the next day to a hospital for treatment. Netanyahu greeted newspaper headlines suggesting he had ducked responsibility with bitter equanimity. "It doesn't matter what I say," he reflected. "They're always out to get me."

Writing on the wall

Nobody was surprised by the denunciations leveled by High Court justices this week during the hearing about the non-inclusion of female members on the Turkel panel. The writing was blatantly on the wall on the day the cabinet approved the expansion of the committee, adding two male members to the three already appointed to the original committee. A number of ministers, some of them lawyers, some of them not (Dan Meridor and Limor Livnat, for example ), warned Netanyahu during the discussion that he was setting himself up for a stiff High Court rebuke.

"Appointing a woman is not a luxury," one minister declared during that same meeting. "It is a requirement of law."

The decision in favor of the expanded panel was approved by a slim cabinet majority, and the vote featured a number of objectors and abstainers. Ordinarily, this sort of motion passes unanimously, virtually automatically. At the end of that week, the writer of this column predicted that the High Court would be reluctant to ratify the government decision; the column added that the Turkel panel - which was hatched as a private joke between Netanyahu and Neeman - and which from its birth never enjoyed a moment of quiet - still had new ordeals to face. The High Court was supposed to have reached a decision on the matter before these words went to press, but on Wednesday, when the High Court finished its hearing, it became clear that the prolongation of this unnecessary farce was inevitable.

It is a farce that reflects a typical work pattern in Netanyahu's office: When faced with a choice between two alternatives, one correct and necessary, and the other mistaken and problematic, it chooses the second, and crosses its fingers in the hope that everything will work out. From the start, the composition of this particular committee was hardly an issue of life or death.

Justice Turkel's obstinate demand to appoint his legal colleague Miguel Deutsch is what complicated matters. But the power to rectify things rested with the prime minister. In his defense, he will undoubtedly say that he consulted with two senior legal advisers, Yaakov Neeman and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who approved the committee's composition. Neeman's role in this is typical, in view of his penchant for setting legal and political land mines in Netanyahu's path - but Weinstein? Just this week the attorney general delayed the appointment of the chief of staff on account of some concocted document. What stopped him from acting with comparable assertiveness at the cabinet meeting at which the Turkel panel expansion was discussed?