Smart in Retrospect

As time goes by, the more it feels like this instrument known as a commission of inquiry has become a monster that has turned on its master.

This country has been through state probes on practically everything, even the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff. Committees have been formed to probe 101 different scandals, from the collapse of the Versailles banquet hall, the bank-inspired inflation of stock prices and the training of soldiers in the carcinogenic waters of the Kishon, to the disappearance of Yemenite children in the early days of the state. As time goes by, the more it feels like this instrument known as a commission of inquiry has become a monster that has turned on its master.

The Winograd Committee got me thinking about the overuse of inquiry committees. These bodies cannot be allowed to replace the Knesset and its committees, which have the necessary tools to investigate fiascoes whenever the need be. They cannot be allowed to replace official oversight agencies such as the state comptroller's office and the courts. And, in the final reckoning, they cannot be a substitute for the voter, who has the power to topple governments that make a mess of things.

In a country where governments rarely last longer than two years, we've seen our share of governments brought down by the voters, even without an investigating committee. Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan were forced to resign under public pressure, though the Agranat Commission (Israel's first official commission of inquiry) did not castigate them for their role in the Yom Kippur War. The Kahan Commission, in contrast, stripped Ariel Sharon of the defense portfolio, although he came back big time as prime minister.

True, in a country that has no political culture of accepting responsibility, it is sometimes hard to get rid of those who screw up without an investigating committee. On the other hand, you can't go around paralyzing a whole administration for months while the honored judges subpoena witnesses and deliberate at leisure over cups of tea with lemon about what to include in their interim report and how to phrase the final report. With life-and-death matters hanging in the balance, all the ministers and generals can think of is how to save their skins.

In countries that appoint commissions of inquiry, these commissions generally stick to the facts. They are not asked to make personal recommendations regarding the future of the persons involved, or decide how they should be punished. In Israel, inquiry committees do add such recommendations to their reports.

A few days before he died, I met former Bank Leumi chairman Ernest Japhet at a New York restaurant. Japhet was one of the parties fingered by the Biesky Commission in its probe of the bank-share scandal in 1984. What burned inside him more than anything was the idea that the commission had barred him from working in his profession (banking) for the rest of his life. "Where did you ever hear of such a thing, apart from the Nuremberg Laws?" he said, and then, to my horror, he burst into bitter tears in front of the whole restaurant.

The investigative committee has become a magic wand for governments seeking shelter from an embarrassing failure. In many countries, governments make mistakes and choose wrongly. When that happens, they don't establish legal panels to investigate. At most, the voters get even with the leader who is behind the muck-up when they go to the polls.

If the public loses its trust in the leadership, as in the Second Lebanon War, it expects the inquiry committee to settle accounts with the government. Not that this is a bad approach in itself. The trouble starts when it is overused. Investigative committees keep important decisions from being made: Governments are paralyzed and put on hold for a stretch of time, so that urgent matters are not dealt with. The old excuse about waiting "until after the holidays" is replaced by waiting "until the committee submits its final report."

We have a real problem on our hands when an investigative committee holds responsible politicians back from making critical decisions. It is not easy for a government that is sitting in the dock to address such matters as Qassam rockets being fired from Gaza, Hamas building up its arsenal and an increase in rocket-range that could have Qassams falling on cities in the heart of the country.

As a well-known legal expert noted with sarcasm, instead of establishing all kinds of committees to investigate the bungles of the past, wouldn't it make more sense to have committees investigating the dangers of the future? Like an investigative committee on the subject of the settlements, for instance, or a committee investigating whether we should be sitting in Nablus and Hebron.

The verdict of a committee of inquiry is not necessarily the word of God. The deliberations of such committees are not conducted under the kind of pressure to which an elected government is subject in real time. The government's job is to govern, the Knesset's job is to monitor and oversee, and the voter's job is to decide whether a government should stay or go, in keeping with how well it performs. We have too many people around here who are smart in hindsight.