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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Relations between State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were never cordial. Numerous confrontations have resulted from investigations that Lindenstrauss undertook to Olmert's undisguised chagrin. Olmert has long insinuated that Lindenstrauss is out to get him.
But past clashes had not prepared us for the present collision of wills. On Tuesday, Lindenstrauss is set to present the Knesset State Control Committee with his interim report on the home front's preparedness for last summer's hostilities in the North. This, despite the fact that Olmert has yet to reply to the comptroller's questions.
Lindenstrauss first wished to hear Olmert in person, thereby allowing him the right of rebuttal. Olmert refused, at which point Lindenstrauss submitted written queries. A three-week extension notwithstanding, Olmert failed to provide his answers. He now says he needs three additional weeks and that the comptroller reneged on previous understandings allowing him extra time.
Lindenstrauss's office has denied the above claim and announced he will wait no longer. All others from whom the comptroller requested explanations supplied them - including Amir Peretz, Avi Dichter, Dan Halutz and Moshe Karadi.
The word from the Prime Minister's Office is that Lindenstrauss is merely trying to beat the Winograd Commission's report on the Lebanon conflict. Coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki has gone further, asserting that Lindenstrauss "seeks to overtake Winograd and take credit for bringing down the government."
This line has predictably provoked a storm of controversy. Some of Olmert's closest Kadima allies have stood by him, with MK Otniel Schneller yesterday reiterating the "playing politics" assertion.
Simultaneously, scathing criticism has been heaped upon Olmert from across the political spectrum. Labor's Danny Yatom concluded that "Olmert's silence and contempt toward a legitimate inquiry are tantamount to pleading guilty on all counts." MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said, "First his government failed to protect Israeli civilians from Hizbullah rocket fire, then it wouldn't formally admit that a state of war existed in order to avoid obligations to two million noncombatants under fire, and now it abandons them for a third time by undermining investigations into what went wrong."
The chairman of the State Control Committee, Zevulun Orlev (NRP), noted that "the interim report cannot wait and isn't superfluous... We can never tell in this country when the next attack will come and must draw practical lessons from what happened to correct mistakes in time."
Orlev is only too right. The interim report, originally earmarked for January, needs to be produced now. It must be assumed that in future wars Israel's hinterland will become a primary target. To face this challenge effectively, the shortcomings in last summer's defense of civilians must be studied urgently. From all indications, the comptroller has conducted a serious, penetrating investigation. Some 60 researchers on his staff have produced a 600-page dossier, divided into 18 chapters, which is scheduled to see light in full during August.
Tomorrow's 8-page preview could be devastating for Olmert in that a particularly harsh bottom line might trigger a State Control Committee decision to establish the very state inquiry that Olmert sought to avoid to begin with. In this context, Olmert's procrastinations are particularly worrisome. If his ministers had enough time to reply, it might reasonably be assumed, so did Olmert. The premier cannot delay the report by postponing the dispatch of his version.
Transparent government and proper accountability demand candid and timely disclosure from him. Anything else means handing the government the veto power to prevent publication of whatever it regards as adverse findings. Charging that a state comptroller who is doing his job is attempting a coup - the essence of Yitzhaki's critique - is outrageous.
The IDF, too, is apparently unhappy with the narrow window afforded by Lindenstrauss for its response. Plainly, it would have been better for all, including the public, had the process leading up to delivery of the interim report incorporated greater cooperation.
But time here truly is of the essence. The well-being of the public is at stake. And that should have been, and now must be, the prime consideration in documenting and learning the lessons of last summer's war and taking steps toward correcting the failures.