Behind the Lines: Back in commission

The three untouchables are rediscovering their youth, reveling in their newfound status as the national crimebusters.

Zeiler 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Zeiler 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Septuagenarians rule the country. Instead of an elected government, we suddenly have three retired judges leading our politicians, generals and police commanders a not-so-merry dance. It wasn't a grey-haired putsch that placed the gerontocracy in power, but a bizarre combination of corruption and incompetence that brought us Micha Lindenstrauss, Vardi Zeiler and Eliahu Winograd, the three wise men suddenly forming an alternative cabinet. Officially, of course, there's no connection between the three former district court presidents - some observers even believe that there is a discreet competition going on among them - but can't you just imagine them meeting? As conspiracy theories go, you could hardly come up with a more fetching scenario than the three of them sitting together and plotting how to bring about the younger generation's downfall. Acid-tongued Zeiler, the terror of Jerusalem's lawyers and now scourge of the police force; publicity-hound Lindenstrauss, after all those long years in the Haifa backwater now reincarnated as a fearless crusader against corruption in high places; and the placid Rotarian Winograd, who on the Tel Aviv bench had been such a pillar of the establishment, now preparing to bring the temple down. At an age when their contemporaries are moving to retirement homes, writing memoirs and finding comfort in grandchildren, the three untouchables are rediscovering their youth, reveling in their newfound status as the national crimebusters. For decades, they were bound by the strict rules governing the judiciary - their verdicts did the talking for them - now they have new licenses to talk, and the entire media are eager for their every word. Ostensibly, just as it was with their verdicts, it should be their reports doing the talking. At least that is the claim being made against State Comptroller Lindenstrauss. His predecessors never courted the press, say his growing chorus of critics. They were content to publish their semi-annual reports. Zeiler came in for similar attacks when, after delivering his commission's report on police conduct in the Perinian crime family case, he gave a sensational interview to Haaretz in which he said, "If my suspicions are real and this [corruption] is common to wide parts of the police, then this is an evil order, a mafia order." Zeiler, as a judicial authority - say the critics - should not have talked about suspicions without any clear evidence. Various senior officials in the legal establishment feel that mainly Lindenstrauss but also Zeiler have undermined the effectiveness of their work by speaking so freely to the press, both in open interviews and in off-the-record briefings. On the other side, Lindenstrauss and Zeiler have no shortage of supporters who have countered these charges with two main defenses. First, they claim, the old methods of quiet, measured criticism have been proved ineffectual, as the wave of public corruption has proved. Politicians aren't shamed anymore by public reports; they shrug it all off and carry on. Independent figures like Lindenstrauss and Zeiler are the final bulwark protecting Israeli society, and it is their duty to speak their minds and call attention to their findings. Second, those attacking them are serving, in some cases unwittingly, the interests of the corrupt politicians by discrediting the brave crusaders who are trying to fix the system. UNTIL NOW, the reticent Winograd has remained above the fray. In the five months since his commission was set up to investigate the management of the war in Lebanon, there have been remarkably few leaks. Almost all we've heard and read has been based on the impressions of the politicians and IDF officers who appeared before the commission. The five commission members managed to create an image for themselves as "bunkers" in the local media parlance, that rare breed of public official who never briefs or leaks, not even off-off-record. Confronted with such an unaccustomed lack of hard information, the press has had no choice but to come up with a new species of source - "people who have been consulted by the commission members." The explanation behind this is that each of the five members has his or her own circle of friends and advisers who are somehow privy to the commission's deliberations. The spate of reports of what we can expect to see from the commission were attributed to this shadowy coterie of "friends of the Winograds." But Winograd and his colleagues are adamant that they have no friends, at least not any with whom they are loose-lipped, and when Channel 2's super-pundit Amnon Abromovitch reported last week in complete confidence that Winograd would be delivering only "organizational" recommendations, while letting the ministers and generals off the hook despite their failings, it was the last straw. The press announcement that the commission issued on Tuesday was perhaps the most scrutinized document of its kind ever. Each of the commission members agonized over its wording - weighing every comma, considering every possible implication - before authorizing it for publication. Why was it so important to make the announcement, if the commission's first report is due anyway in a month or so? The official answer is in the announcement's first clause. "In the last few days, the media has published assumptions, guesses, assessments and journalistic 'information' regarding the Winograd Commission's report and the date of its presentation. None of these publications was approved by the commission. In addition, information was published that has no basis in the views of the commission's members." In other words, the commission was out to embarrass Abromovitch and his colleagues and prove that there were no leaks. In that sense at least, the announcement seems to have succeeded. But it heralds a much wider media campaign soon to take place. Winograd and his fellow commission members are aware of the media circus about to surround them, and are worried that the kind of partisan warfare taking place over Lindenstrauss's actions could be directed against them. Their report seems to have the potential to bring down the mightiest in the land, and they are already worried that their credibility will soon be under attack. The first signs of this were already visible this week, when various Kadima ministers and MKs criticized the commission for putting out a "promo" before the actual report and causing a political storm. The so carefully worded announcement was the first shot by Winograd in the expected battle over his report.