The Flea Circus

State Comptroller Lindenstrauss and Prime Minister Olmert have been dragged into a battle over personal prestige, which has completely overshadowed the issue they are ostensibly discussing.

"The flea circus" is a forgotten book written by Mordechai Horowitz 30 years ago, and it can be viewed as an allegory of the folly, lunacy and hypocrisy of Israeli society. Something reminiscent of the way of life exposed in this book was evident in the recent argument over publishing the state comptroller's report on the home front during the second Lebanon war. This mad spectacle reached its peak yesterday in a discussion in the Knesset State Control Committee, which feigned concern for northern residents, when in fact the meeting was a platform for settling political and personal accounts, spiced with a great deal of venom.

Ostensibly, an issue of unparalleled importance was on the agenda: The Israeli home front's vulnerability in the event of war. In the name of this vital issue, the prime minister and the state comptroller have engaged in a wrestling match over the last few days: The former wants more time to enable him to respond properly to questions on this matter, while the latter is pressing him to hurry up, on the grounds that the problems revealed in the report require urgent attention. In fact, the two have been dragged into a battle over personal prestige, which has completely overshadowed the issue they are ostensibly discussing.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss hunkered down behind his claims of deliberate foot-dragging on the part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, dragged State Control Committee Chairman Zevulun Orlev in his wake, spurred the Israel Defense Forces to take the unprecedented step of petitioning the High Court of Justice against another government agency and pushed Attorney General Menachem Mazuz into a corner.

Olmert fed the flames by accusing the comptroller of persecuting him, calling him names, recruiting Knesset members from Kadima to the fight and generally bringing our public discourse down to the level of a neighborhood spat.

Both men shot themselves in the foot: Olmert by accusing Lindenstrauss of trying to beat the Winograd Commission to lopping off the prime minister's head, and Lindenstrauss by maintaining his claim that Olmert was dragging his feet in answering the comptroller's questions. Only God knows why Olmert, generally a clever man, volunteered to put his head in the noose and declare at this early stage that both Lindenstrauss and Winograd will find him responsible for the war's failures to an extent that will end his term. And only God knows why the state comptroller dealt with the prime minister in an arrogant manner that entangled him in unconvincing positions. Olmert dug a pit for himself when, in accusing the comptroller of persecuting him, he tied the report on the home front - a national issue of primary importance - to the investigations the comptroller is conducting into his personal behavior on completely unrelated issues. And Lindenstrauss cut off his own nose when he refused to give Olmert a further extension and hastened to present his version of events to the State Control Committee yesterday.

That was an unnecessary appearance, after the High Court of Justice ordered the committee not to discuss the report's findings, and it was an upsetting spectacle, because it revealed a yawning gap between the declared stances of our leaders and their real motives. Committee members spoke piously about their concern for northern residents, when in fact their entire goal was to reap political capital. The meeting was not directed at the substantive issue, but at the prime minister and the state comptroller personally. Opposition MKs lobbed softballs to the comptroller so that he would attack Olmert, while Kadima MKs pounced on weak links in the comptroller's version of events. It was clearly a personal discussion in which the country's welfare played no role whatsoever.

Lindenstrauss, for his part, opted to focus on reconstructing the timetable of his contacts with Olmert's office in order to prove his claim that the prime minister had refused to cooperate with his investigation. The comptroller was so eager to prove this version of events that he did not hesitate to claim that Olmert had in any case prepared for his appearance before the Winograd Commission, and therefore there was no reason why he should not respond quickly to the comptroller's questions. Lindenstrauss did not sense that this argument indicated harassment of the prime minister.

In this political vanity fair, the reason for the comptroller's report was forgotten: the need to adapt the country when it cannot fight a war only on enemy territory - in contrast to the security doctrine it has followed hitherto, which led it to believe that the home front did not need extensive protection.