PMO 'Astounded' by Comptroller Criticism Over Probe Plan

Says comptroller must issue opinion if asked by cabinet; PM wants comptroller to probe home front wartime readiness.

The Prime Minister's Office said Tuesday that it was "astounded" to hear of complaints by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss over a plan for him to investigate the wartime readiness of Israel's home front.

The PMO added that the law explicitly states that the State Comptroller is bound to write an opinion when requested to do so by the cabinet.

Lindenstrauss earlier Tuesday reprimanded Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for having announced that the government would ask him to carry out the investigation, saying that the proposal was against the law and would compromise the independence of the Comptroller's office.

The exchange also followed a flap in which senior officials in the Labor Party, the key partner in Ehud Olmert's coalition government, openly expressed opposition to Olmert's announced intention to appoint a number of investigative committees rather than a full state inquiry into the conduct of the war.

Olmert decided that the issue of the preparedness of the home front would not be included within the brief of the governmental panel of inquiry, and asked that the investigation be handled by the comptroller.

Lindenstrauss issued a statement Tuesday saying that under the law, only the comptroller and his office were authorized to decide on the investigations they undertake. It was important that the cabinet be scrupulous regarding the independence of the comptroller's office, the statement said.

The Prime Minister's Office responded that it was "astounded to hear from the media of the comptroller's complaints."

The PMO cited a clause of the Comptroller's Law stating that "the Comptroller is obligated to the prepare a ruling on every issue within his purview, whether asked to do so by the Knesset ? or by the cabinet."

Labor ministers oppose inquiry planTwo Labor cabinet ministers said late on Monday that they would vote against the prime minister's decision.

Olmert decided Monday to set up two committees of inquiry into the government's and military's handling of the war, rejecting both the option of a more comprehensive, independent state commission of inquiry and a government commission of inquiry.

A third panel, yet to be appointed, will look into the Israel Defense Forces' and the defense establishment's functioning during the war.

The criticism within Labor was led by ministers Ophir Pines-Paz and Eitan Cabel, who announced that they would vote against the commission outlined by Olmert and said they would try to persuade other ministers to do the same. The Labor Party chairman, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, declined Monday to comment on Olmert's decision.

Pines-Paz called for a state commission, calling it the right way and the only way, to investigate the war. "I intend to oppose [Olmert's decision] in the government, and will try to convince other ministers," he said. "The commission Olmert has appointed to investigate the political echelons does not have clear authority or a timetable, and increasing the number of commissions of inquiries will lead to chaos."

Olmert associates, however, believe that the prime minister has a comfortable majority within the government who are in favor of his proposal, even if Labor ministers vote against.

"We don't have the luxury to spend years examining the past. What we need is a businesslike, professional investigation that gets to the root of the problem quickly," Olmert said in a speech in Haifa on Monday night, addressing leaders of communities damaged by Hezbollah rocket fire.

He also said he did not want to subject the army to "collective flagellation."

Sources close to the prime minister told Haaretz that the Shin Bet security service and Mossad had advised Olmert not to establish a state commission of inquiry into the war.

"The committee will be charged with examining the government's functioning and decision-making as it sees fit," Olmert said.

The inquiry into the government's conduct and functioning during the war will be headed by former Mossad intelligence service chief Nahum Admoni.

Law Professor Ruth Gavison, Professor Yehezkel Dror and Brigadier General (res.) Yedidya Yaari will also serve on the panel.

Olmert emphasized that the decision to go to war had been his alone, and said he was responsible for the war's results. "I want to make one thing clear, the responsibility for the decision to go to war... is entirely mine," the prime minister said.

Neither of the two committees named on Monday has the legal authority to summon witnesses.

The powers of the panels fall short of the demands for an independent, in-depth probe with the authority to dismiss top government officials.

Olmert's decision is likely to further enrage critics, who say that the prime minister and other top officials should be the focus of the investigation and not its overseer.

Critics have been demanding a full-blown state commission of inquiry that has the authority to dismiss officials. Israel has carried out such inquiries after past crises - including the 1982 Lebanon War - that led to the dismissal of then defense minister Ariel Sharon.

The examination of how the bombarded home front was handled will not be under the jurisdiction of either commission, and will be left up to the state comptroller to investigate.

In his speech, Olmert justified the war, saying Israel inflicted heavy damage on Hezbollah. He described the cease-fire, which calls for a beefed-up international force to help police the border, as a major diplomatic success.

He also said the ground offensive, launched just as the cease-fire agreement was taking form, was "unavoidable," despite the heavy Israeli casualties. He said the offensive put pressure on the United Nations to approve the cease-fire.

Former MK Professor Amnon Rubinstein was offered the chairmanship of the committee of inquiry into the conduct of the government, but he turned it down.

The committee of inquiry into the functioning of the military during the war will apparently be based on the panel appointed by Defense Minister Amir Peretz and headed by former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

The panel suspended its work after one day due to public criticism.