Let Democracy Triumph

Without the activity of the Winograd Committee, it is doubtful whether Amir Peretz, Dan Halutz and other senior officers would have stepped down.

One can point to Moshe Katsav's behavior to illustrate how tenuous the recommendation to abolish commissions of inquiry is. Learned political science experts contend that the Winograd Committee (and it is just one example of the external commissions of inquiries formed to study the government's behavior during national crises) disrupted the proper democratic process. According to their view, instead of having the public and the political system judge the functioning of the state's leaders and draw the necessary conclusions, the state defers to external commissions of inquiry. In other words, the sovereign's decision is handed over to five random people.

Katsav, for those who have forgotten, did not hesitate to cling to his seat even after his turpitude was exposed, and even lashed out in anger at his critics, throwing sand in the eyes of the public. Katsav lacked an internal moral compass to instruct him to step down in shame and disappear from the public arena. On the contrary, even after the police's severe findings, and even after the attorney general's lenient and strange decision, he continued to protest and demand rights. The political system acted in the same way: Until the complaints against Katsav were translated into dry legal language, the Knesset did not demand that the public be relieved of this burden.

Katsav is not the only one. During the last two years alone, the names of Ehud Olmert, Abraham Hirchson, Tzachi Hanegbi, Shlomo Benizri and others have been raised in problematic contexts. Israeli society does not impose social and public sanctions on its leaders who have transgressed, unless their rotten behavior is translated into explicit indictments. In general, nothing in the internal code, which exalts and humiliates public leaders, derives from moral criteria or proper ethical conduct. The state's leaders are brought to justice only when they are convicted of criminal activity. And even then, the echelon that sets the tone often displays a generous degree of forgiveness soon after these leaders have completed serving their sentence (Aryeh Deri, for example). And if this is the situation when real crimes are committed, it is even so more in the case of flawed behavior by politicians that does not reach the level of formal crime.

This is indeed the basic weakness of the argument for abolishing the institution of the commission of inquiry: It is exaggerated in its purism and is detached from Israeli reality, as if Israeli society were endowed with sufficient vitality to drive the process that judges the behavior of leaders in sound democracies. As if Israel were Japan, where public leaders bow in submission and resign when a flaw is discovered in their areas of responsibility; as if Israel were Britain, where hypocritical behavior compels ministers to resign; as if Israel were the U.S., where a leader who is caught in a lie endangers or terminates his public career. It is hard not to wonder: If the Israeli democracy cannot function properly via the accepted mechanisms - the Knesset, the government, the state comptroller, the media, the High Court of Justice - why relinquish an external auxiliary instrument?

The alternative proposed by the school demanding the commission of inquiry be abolished is to allow matters to run their course. If this approach were applied to the public arena following the Second Lebanon War, it would have looked like this: The protest by combat soldiers and bereaved families would have petered out within a few days, and Olmert would have maneuvered the government and Knesset into returning to business as usual, while declaring that the necessary lessons had been learned. The Israel Defense Forces would have announced that it had begun urgent internal debriefings and current events (the situation in Gaza, the operation in Syria, the threats from Iran) would have deflected attention from the events of the summer of 2006.

Without the activity of the Winograd Committee, it is doubtful whether Amir Peretz, Dan Halutz and other senior officers would have stepped down. "Aha," the aforementioned political scientists thunder, "this is what the public expects of commissions of inquiry - to chop off heads." As if the legitimate demand to call into account those who bear responsibility for a horrible national failure is a sinister craving. And when considering the price public figures in Israel pay for their failures, it is worth recalling Katsav again: The gallows where he was hung dispatched him to retirement under cushy terms, costing a million shekels a year.