Critical Currents: The commission of inquiry trap

Let the people - not judicial panels - take responsibility

By NAOMI CHAZAN
February 7, 2008 12:57
4 minute read.
naomi chazan portrait 88

naomi chazan 88. (photo credit: )

The Israeli propensity to rely on commissions of inquiry to resolve crises, redress gross mismanagement and punish wrongdoers is no longer sustainable. The publication of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War underscores the bankruptcy of this investigatory culture which, by encouraging the shirking of fundamental obligations, has become part of the problem it seeks to redress. National commissions of inquiry since the Agranat probe into the Yom Kippur War - and with increased frequency following the Kahan Commission Report into the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in 1982 - have been used simultaneously as a tool to channel popular unrest, to reexamine decision-making procedures, to draw operational lessons and, all too often, to determine culpability. During their tenure, these semi-judicial bodies have assumed functions usually associated with the judiciary, the executive branch, the legislature, political parties and citizens at large. In the process, they have paralyzed critical institutions and delayed corrective measures, while absolving both leaders and their constituencies - at least temporarily - from assuming ongoing responsibility for their actions. Instead of safeguarding democracy, these committees of inquiry have come to stifle democratic energies, and may yet undermine popular trust in our system of government in its entirety. The Winograd Commission is a paradigmatic example of this deleterious pattern. The political arena has been in a state of uneasy suspension for almost 18 months while the five members of the investigatory panel heard testimony, sifted through documents, pondered evidence and arrived at conclusions. When they finally published their findings, they left their various audiences mostly dissatisfied, if not totally disillusioned. THE RESULTS could hardly have been otherwise. The commission of inquiry mode that has become entrenched in the country in recent decades possesses several salient characteristics that contribute to such an outcome. The first is the studied avoidance of substance. The Winograd Commission - like many of its predecessors - purposely shunned any discussion of the content of key decisions in favor of a careful dissection of how they were made. By doing so, it narrowed the parameters of its own - and the accompanying public - discourse. It therefore implied that there is no connection between the nature of policy and how it is determined. This separation is not only artificial, it is fallacious. Surely the way the war was handled was at least partly a product of the judiciousness of its initiation. The second trait follows logically - an overconcentration on decision-making procedures. The interim and final reports belabor the amateurish and haphazard comportment of the prime minister and his key ministers, not to mention their overly deferential attitude toward the military brass. The lack of ingrained checks and balances led to a series of fateful (and often fatal) errors of judgment. These findings diverge only in detail from those highlighted in previous such reports dating as far back as 1973. They do little to offer timely and up-to-date ways of rectifying the endemic procedural problems that seem to plague leadership behavior in times of crisis. The culture of inquiry package then proceeds, third, to a long itemization of operational defects, mostly on the military side. Once again, there is a presumption that proper preparation, management and implementation would have yielded different results. Perhaps, but not if the undertaking was misconceived from the outset and its goals ill defined, nor if administrative malfunctions had not been allowed to fester unattended for so long. Indeed, since formal investigatory bodies by definition focus on egregious errors, they also spotlight those responsible. The fourth aspect of the syndrome associated with these ostensibly objective bodies is the most obvious - and the most personal. They are expected to assess accountability, allocate blame and make specific suggestions on the future of particular individuals. Whether they actually do so or not, their work is highly political in orientation and possesses far-reaching political implications. The commission culture has a headhunting flavor; it evokes a mixture of relief, cynicism and mistrust that may further upset the already fragile political order. Finally, then, the results of such commissions are rarely fully implemented (the decision not to indict any of those named by the Orr Commission for the death of 13 Arab citizens in the October 2000 riots being the latest case in point). They tend to leave large segments of the population either displeased or disgusted, thus weakening civic action at critical moments. Reviving confidence in government, not to speak of leaders, becomes progressively more difficult. Sadly, the lore around commissions of inquiry may adversely affect not only the country's democratic underpinnings, but also the robustness of the state and its institutions. THE TIME has come to forgo the unhealthy dependence on quasi-legal panels as a substitute for democratic action. We can ill afford deferring ongoing policy evaluations, regular improvements in decision-making procedures and constant institutional and managerial innovations. We must insist on maintaining leadership accountability at all times and exercise our own responsibilities in this regard (especially at the polls) on a continuous basis. Above all, we cannot allow commissions of inquiry to replace the activation of democratic norms. The country must develop a truly sustainable dynamic of democratic behavior. Otherwise it will continue to repeat past errors, limping from crisis to crisis without opening itself to constructive policy alternatives which generate true governmental credibility, efficiency, legitimacy and durability.


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