Virtually everyone on the Knesset’s prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee wants a state commission of inquiry into this summer’s war in Lebanon — everyone, that is, but members of Ehud Olmert’s ruling Kadima party. City council members in missile-shattered Kiryat Shmonah demanded of Prime Minister Olmert that he establish a state inquiry when he visited the city this week. Petitions circulated by reservists home from the war call for such a commission, as do some of the protesters outside the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. Those are the moderate protesters. The others are simply demanding that Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and military chief of staff Dan Halutz resign immediately.
Hardly a week after the cease-fire, Israeli public fury over how the war was conducted and the failure to achieve its declared goals is only growing. And while citizen-soldiers, ex-generals and politicians of the left and right actually have very different descriptions of what went wrong, they seem to agree that the first step toward fixing it is a state commission of inquiry. The demand fits national tradition: State panels, each headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time, investigated how Israel was taken by surprise in the Yom Kippur War and what led to the Sabra and Shatilla massacre during the first Lebanon War, in 1982.
In both cases, not-quite-precise historical memory says, the commissions’ conclusions led to heads rolling. No wonder, then, that both Olmert and Peretz quickly sought to satisfy the public with lower-level investigations. A full-blown inquiry commission threatens their political futures.
Yet it also could be a diversion. As a quasi-judicial body, a commission could expose incompetence and negligence. It would not resolve political questions raised by the war — especially about unilateral withdrawal, the policy that defines Olmert as a leader. Public debate of those questions potentially poses even greater risks for the prime minister.
The first bid to satisfy inquiry demands came from Peretz, who appointed his own panel to examine how the military functioned before and during the war. In leaks to the press, unnamed officers immediately attacked the move as way of deflecting criticism from the defense minister. The head of the panel, they noted, was ex-military chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who advised Peretz during the fighting. And the panel, they said, was hardly likely to focus on the decisions of the man who appointed it.
This week, Olmert asked Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to formulate alternatives for a postmortem. The attorney general then asked the Lipkin-Shahak panel to freeze its work so as to avoid duplications. By week’s end, Mazuz was to present his ideas to the Cabinet.
Mazuz’s assignment was apparently to avoid a state commission of inquiry. Under a 1968 law, the Cabinet decides on creating such a commission. From there, though, responsibility passes to the judicial branch. The chief justice of the Supreme Court names the members, and the chairman is a justice or other senior judge. For an examination of a war, Chief Justice Aharon Barak himself would be the likely chairman, and he would be sure to choose at least one ex-general. (The Agranat Commission on the Yom Kippur War, for instance, included ex-chiefs of staff Yigal Yadin and Chaim Laskov.) The commission would have subpoena power — even for the prime minister. Its recommendations would be public, with the possible exception of some classified material.
“An inquiry commission is unnecessary,” Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog said this week. Herzog, a Laborite, was a key spokesman for the government during the war. While a postmortem was needed, he said, a commission becomes “an arena for lawyers, who make lots of money” representing top officials. “If someone wants to know why there wasn’t food for units in the field, I don’t think that’s [reason] for a battle of attorneys.” As for the Cabinet’s decisions during the war, Herzog said: “It’s easy to criticize after the fact. I don’t suggest to anyone to judge the decision makers until they’ve sat in their seats.”
Yet after a month of war that did not free the soldiers who were abducted by Hezbollah, did not drive the Shi’ite militia from southern Lebanon and arguably did not boost Israeli deterrence, judgment is on the public agenda. An inquiry commission is “essential almost desperately,” said Ran Cohen, a Knesset member from the Meretz party and an ex-colonel. The Likud’s Yuval Steinitz, who, like Cohen, is a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, agreed: “This war was run in the most confused manner, the most bungled manner, of any war in Israeli history. The Cabinet, the [Israel Defense Forces] and the understandings — or misunderstandings — between them must be investigated.”
Yet the politicians’ views of what questions a commission should ask show how fraught its work will be. For Cohen, the key query is “how we slid into war” after Hezbollah abducted the soldiers. Cohen says that after previous border incidents, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon told him, “I won’t allow [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah to open a second front at the time and place of his choosing.” In contrast, Cohen said, “Olmert did just that at the first provocation.”
For Steinitz, on the other hand, the essential question is why the IDF delayed a ground invasion. As soon as Hezbollah began firing rockets at northern Israel, he said, “within three days tops, Israel should have conquered southern Lebanon, even a bit beyond the Litani River.”
Ami Ayalon — ex-commander of the navy, ex-Shin Bet chief and now a Labor legislator — said that a central issue was haste: “This was a justified war,” but it would have cost Israel nothing to tell Lebanon and the international community that they had three days to return the soldiers “and in the meantime… to call up our forces and take out the maps” to plan carefully. (Ayalon is rumored to be planning a challenge to Peretz’s leadership of Labor; he said this week that with soldiers still in Lebanon, it was “too early” to discuss party politics.)
So despite its judicial format and formal claim to objectivity, the commission’s phrasing of its questions will have political overtones. That’s not the only pitfall, says Gad Barzilai, a professor of law and political science at Tel Aviv University and at the University of Washington, Seattle. An inquiry commission’s conclusions, he notes, are legally only recommendations. So when the commission ends its work, results still will depend on the public.
The Agranat Commission is proof. Most of its recommendations were never implemented by the army, according to Barzilai. The commission placed blame on generals rather than on politicians — but the public outcry after its report forced then-prime minister Golda Meir and then-defense minister Moshe Dayan to leave office anyway.
Yet the deeper problem with an inquiry commission, Barzilai says, is “judicialization” — an Israeli tendency to evade public debate of political and ideological issues by asking for a judicial response to a crisis. In the current crisis, an inquiry commission is unlikely to say anything about the desirability of unilateral withdrawal from occupied land. Yet the war has raised critical questions about that concept, leaving a gaping hole in the program of Olmert and his new Kadima party.
It is not simply that Olmert won the general election in March on a platform of unilaterally pulling out of a large part of the West Bank. That approach was the reason that Kadima came into existence as a split-off from the Likud. Accidentally thrust into the role of candidate after Sharon’s stroke, Olmert lacked the personal status of his predecessor. He therefore ran on the platform rather than on persona. To Israelis who accepted the left’s argument that Israel needed to guarantee its Jewish majority and the right’s insistence that there was no Palestinian peace partner, he promised the solution of unilateralism.
In early August, Olmert told The Associated Press that he expected the war’s results to create “new momentum for his plan.” By using massive force, he apparently expected to shatter Hezbollah — which has supported Palestinian terror groups — and to show the unbearable price of attacking Israel after a withdrawal. That would make it safe to leave the West Bank without a peace deal.
Instead, the rocket barrage from Lebanon, following the rocket fire from Gaza, has amplified questions about Olmert’s approach drastically. “I think unilateral convergence has been dead for a while,” Ayalon said. “Anyone who doesn’t understand that is blind in matters of state…. The government has to ask what its identity is, what its right to exist is.”
In effect, Olmert is left with two choices he has ruled out previously: continuing to rule the West Bank indefinitely or reopening negotiations with the Palestinians. Failing to define a direction could make it increasingly difficult to hold together his party. Meanwhile, a renewed struggle over leadership and ideology seems likely in Labor, his main coalition partner.
With public pressure increasing, there’s a strong chance that Olmert will have to accede to a commission of inquiry in the coming days. The panel’s conclusions, months down the road, will be a major test for him and his government. But the commission will not provide answers to the wider political dilemma. That test will be even more difficult.