Behind the Lines: Mea culpa? Not on your life...

Commissions of inquiry are there 'not so much for digging up the truth, as for digging it in.'

train crash air 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
train crash air 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
'I'm sorry, but we don't work for you or anyone else," said the senior Defense Ministry official. "The report on the incident will be published when it's ready, not when the press demands." This arrogant position belied the near panic which had struck the upper echelons of the ministry. Here they were, barely a month into the tenure of the new minister - who had begun his term with lofty promises of things being done differently from now on - when suddenly they were under fire on three fronts. Amir Peretz's neighbors and cabinet colleagues were personally blaming him for not acting forcefully against the terrorists raining missiles down on Sderot; the Palestinians, the world media and the Israeli Left were denouncing the wanton carnage of civilians; and, within the establishment, criticism was rampant over the mismanagement of events that had allowed the army to automatically be identified as the culprit after seven members of the Ghalia family were blown to pieces on Gaza Beach. After a belated realization of the reasonable probability this time that the deaths weren't caused by the IDF, Peretz and Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz took the standard step of setting up an investigatory team. That the probe was headed by a major general, and its results were presented by Peretz and Halutz at a press conference, stemmed not from operational considerations or the need to draw conclusions for the next bombardment. Rather, it was due to the desire to prove to critics that the IDF is not a clumsy, cruel or hand-tied organization, as it has been portrayed. The IAF's strike in Gaza a few hours before the press conference - which, in addition to the eliminating the group preparing to launch a Grad rocket, also killed eight civilians - proved what a futile PR exercise it had been. You don't have to be a ballistics expert to understand that when Palestinian terrorist groups operate from within civilian areas, firing dozens of missiles daily on Israeli civilians, a number of what the army calls "the uninvolved" are going to get killed. High explosives are not an exact science. What if the IDF probe had shown that an Israeli artillery shell had indeed killed the family last Friday? Would anyone have been charged with a crime, or even negligence? Perhaps the battery commander would have been disciplined, but how could he have been blamed for being ordered to take part in what is essentially a deadly crap-shoot? If it were the other way around - and a Kassam had hit a kindergarten in Sderot - would a commission of inquiry have been set up? And if so, would Peretz and Halutz have been blamed for not ordering the army to reinvade Gaza? The fact that they are responsible for ensuring our security and the conduct of the IDF doesn't mean that there is even a remote possibility of either of them ever resigning if they fail to do so. NOR WILL we be seeing any high-profile resignations in the wake of Monday's train accident next to Beit Yehoshua, in which five people were killed. So what if it was totally foreseeable - mirroring the accident at Revadim exactly a year ago, which left seven dead. Three commissions have been set up to investigate the accident: one by Israel Railways, another by the police and a third by the Transport Ministry. We can expect the disaster to be forgotten long before we get any results. But here again, who should be blamed? Transport and Road Safety [sic] Minister Shaul Mofaz hasn't been on the job long enough to be responsible for anything, but it would be equally unfair to place any of the blame on former transport minister Meir Sheetrit, who himself only held the position for less than two years, during part of which he doubled as education minister. Going further down in the hierarchy is just as problematic. Israel Railways can always blame the police for not being vigilant enough against drivers who ignore red lights at railroad crossings, or the local councils blocking plans for the construction of tunnels to prevent cars and trains from traveling on the same level. A blame-game has kicked off between the company and the police. It's a safe bet that, other than a list of recommendations, at most, reports from any of the three committees will scapegoat the driver of the train and the pick-up truck, who may or may not have been under the influence of narcotics when his car stalled. THE MEDIA is always criticized for finger-pointing and a thirst for heads to roll at the top. But the government and the courts are guilty of a much greater crime: lack of accountability. Israeli politicians never resign due to mismanagement. The term "ministerial responsibility" actually exists in Israeli law, but it is never implemented. Such behavior is not limited to ministers. At all levels of officialdom, taking responsibility for one's failure has always been the exception, not the rule. Last week in these pages, I predicted that no culprits would be found by the committee set up to investigate the power outages that paralyzed parts of the country and caused at least one fatality this month. Well, the committee presented its findings. Naturally, technical mishaps took the rap, in spite of reports that the union and senior officials had a clear interest in proving the limits of the national power grid. As British politician and author A. P. Herbert wrote, commissions of inquiry are there "not so much for digging up the truth, as for digging it in." From the Agranat Commission that questioned why the IDF was unprepared for the Yom Kippur War, yet let Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan off the hook, to the Kahan Commission that decided Ariel Sharon wouldn't be allowed to continue as defense minister after the Sabra and Shatila massacres, which didn't stop him from eventually becoming prime minister - such probes do little more than state the obvious and reel off recommendations that are ignored. Another case in point is the Orr Commission, set up three years ago after 13 Israeli Arabs were killed in riots at the start of the second intifada. Its recommendations included not allowing police commander Bentzi Sau to be promoted for at least four years. A couple of weeks ago, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter appointed Sau to head of his operational staff. In such a climate, you have got to feel sorry for Colonel Erez, commander of the Nevatim Air Force base, who Thursday announced his resignation in the wake of the statutory gang-rape of a 13-year-old girl who lived with her family on his base. Though the interim investigative report clearly absolved him of guilt in the affair, he is stepping down. In a system where personal responsibility counts for something, there would be nothing strange about his resignation. But in our system, he would appear to be the least likely candidate for taking the rap for other people's crimes.