The Winograd Committee, created to probe the war in Lebanon, is expected to start its work on Monday or Tuesday, following a tortuous route, whereby it took almost as long for the government to set up a committee to investigate the war as it did to fight the war itself.
The cabinet on Sunday approved the establishment of the Winograd Governmental Investigative Committee by a vote of 20-2, with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) abstaining.
Both of the votes against the committee came from Labor Party ministers Eitan Cabel and Ophir Paz-Pines who wanted to see a broader state commission of inquiry established.
According to the government decision, the committee will "investigate, and determine findings and conclusions, and will present recommendations as it sees fit regarding the political echelons and the security system, as pertains to the range of aspects of the campaign in the North, which began on July 12, 2006."
Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who backed the creation of a full-blown state commission of inquiry, voted for the establishment of the committee.
Although the members of the committee were selected by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon, who held an on-record briefing after the cabinet meeting, said that what the government did was "merely bring the committee into the world," and now that it was born, it would operate completely independently.
Maimon said there was no more reason to fear that the committee members would be any more dependent on the government than the attorney-general, who is also selected by the government but has the power to investigate and indict government ministers.
In addition to retired judge Eliahu Winograd, who will head the committee, the panel also includes Professor Ruth Gavison, Professor Yehezkel Dror, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Menahem Einan and Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Haim Nadel.
Paz-Pines said one of the reasons he voted against the committee was because it was set up by the prime minister and cabinet ministers, who will be investigated by the committee. Another reason, he added, was because governmental investigative committees were well suited for localized incidents, such as the collapse of the Versailles banquet hall in Jerusalem in 2001 and the collapse of the bridge at the Maccabiah Games in 1997, but not for wars.
Maimon said that the Winograd Committee would have much of the same authority as a state commission of inquiry, with the major difference being that it was expected to be less legalistic and that those asked to testify would not come to meetings with top-flight lawyers.
One of Olmert's central objections to setting up a commission of inquiry was that it would turn into a trial, with everyone appearing accompanied by a lawyer and trying to deflect blame onto somebody else. In this type of situation, he maintained, it would be difficult to quickly come up with conclusions, something he consistently said was necessary, considering the challenges the country faces.
Asked why it was preferable to set up a government investigative committee rather than a state commission of inquiry, Maimon responded with a question of his own: Why not this type of committee instead of a state commission of inquiry? Maimon continued, saying that the committee was not provided with a date by which it needed to complete its work and issue a report but the hope was that it would be done quickly. He said that the committee would determine which sessions to hold in camera, and which ones would be open.
The committee will have the right to subpoena witnesses and to grant them immunity from any further prosecution, just like a state commission of inquiry. Maimon said it was not yet clear where the committee's hearings would be held.
The cabinet resolution referred to the events in the North as a "campaign," and not a war, because, according to Maimon, a war was a legal definition that necessitated a decision by the government and the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which was never made during the fighting in the North.
While the committee will investigate the management of the war by both the security and political echelons, the State Comptroller has already launched an investigation of various aspects of the war, concentrating on the functioning of the home front. The State Comptroller has said that he reserved the right to investigate whatever he saw fit.
Maimon said that during the cabinet meeting, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz said it was clear that each committee needed to respect and not duplicate the work of the other.
During the cabinet meeting, Olmert took a swipe at former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon who, in an interview over the weekend, called for the resignation of Olmert, Peretz and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz.
Ya'alon said that the final ground offensive of the war, during which 33 soldiers were killed, was done for spin.
"That was a spin move," Ya'alon told Ha'aretz. "It had no substantive security-political goal, only a spin goal. It was meant to supply the missing victory picture. You can't do that. You don't send soldiers to carry out a futile mission after the political outcome has already been set. I consider that corrupt."
Olmert said at the cabinet meeting that it was a shame that families who lost their loved ones were being dragged into the argument over the war. "It is a pity that they are being used to settle accounts," he said.
Maimon said that Olmert told the cabinet he would not be dragged into this type of discussion, "not because I don't have any answers, but because I choose not to." Olmert, Maimon said, told the cabinet he understood that there were those who wanted to attack the prime minister and defense minister, and that this was the way of politics and "understandable." But he didn't understand how anyone dared to say to dozens of families [that their] sons were sent to death for a photo opportunity, Maimon said.
"He [Olmert] is sorry for these baseless words, [which were] not based on the work of a committee, or any kind of investigation."