Legal Affairs: Trying to iron it out

Even if establishing yet another commission of inquiry to determine the progress of the resettlement of Gush Katif evacuees is necessary, it's inherently problematic.

gaza evacuees gather 224 (photo credit: Abe Selig)
gaza evacuees gather 224
(photo credit: Abe Selig)
It was a bit odd to see Zevulun Orlev, the former super-energetic chairman of the Knesset's State Control Committee, sitting at the far end of the committee chamber while some interloper (his successor, Kadima's Yoel Hasson) sat at the head of the table and ran the meeting. It was even odder to see Orlev urge Hasson to drop his proposal to ask for State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to investigate whether private businessman Uri Yogev was guilty of a conflict of interests, because he negotiated the budget agreement with the Histadrut and the employers on behalf of the government. Hasson wanted to ask Lindenstrauss for a "mere" special investigation, whereas Orlev had broken the "Guinness" record, by ordering three state commissions of inquiry on three different subjects which had been investigated by the state comptroller. The difference, Orlev didactically explained to the novice chairman, was that none of the state inquiries he called for were politically controversial issues. They involved government handling of the Holocaust survivors in Israel, the country's water shortage and the resettlement of the Gush Katif evacuees. While most people would agree that the first two issues are bipartisan matters, many questioned Orlev's insistence on a state commission of inquiry into the third. One reason for raised eyebrows might have been linked to the way Orlev introduced his motion to appoint the state commission on July 30, 2008. "We cannot ignore the fact that 10,000 people were expelled, and the government abandoned them," he told the committee. "The majority of the Knesset raised their hands to expel these people, and the majority of the Knesset must [now] look after them." In fairness to Orlev, it should be said that Lindenstrauss himself supported the establishment of a state commission, and that two members of the coalition, Kadima MKs Amira Dotan and Michael Nudelman, went along with it. Three other coalition MKs voted against it, and two abstained. But the controversy did not end with the decision to order the establishment of a commission of inquiry. Technically, that decision was based on the findings of a report published by Lindenstrauss more than two years earlier, in March 2006. In fact, however, a subcommittee of the State Control Committee, headed by Dotan, had monitored the Gush Katif resettlement program over the following two years and had been critical of more issues than those included in Lindenstrauss's original report. The State Control Committee, in its request to Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch to appoint a commission of inquiry, asked that it also investigate these "new" topics, even though Lindenstrauss had not written about them. However, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz informed the committee that by including topics not addressed in the state comptroller's report, it had exceeded its authority. Furthermore, former interior minister Avraham Poraz petitioned the High Court to block the establishment of the commission of inquiry on those same grounds. In a problematic response to these objections, Lindenstrauss hastily released a second report on the resettlement program. Of course, the State Comptroller's Office had been working on this follow-up to the original one for many months. But it is more than likely that the publication of the second report in January 2009 - in time to render the attorney-general's objections and Poraz's petition obsolete - was a last-minute rush job, aimed at paving the way for the establishment of the judicial commission of inquiry. THE COMMISSION was indeed established. There is no question that its members - retired Supreme Court Justice Eliahu Mazza, Dr. Shimon Ravid and Prof. Yedidya Stern - are competent, objective and fair-minded. But the prehistory of the commission has created some serious built-in problems. The most serious seems to be the fact that the state comptroller's second report covers the period up to December 31, 2007. In other words, the commission has to deal with a situation that was true more than two years and four months ago. And though the Gush Katif evacuees might disagree, much has happened since then. For example, according to the state comptroller's report, a total of 1,113 families from Gush Katif have opted for resettlement in their original (or part of their original) Gaza Strip communities. Lindenstrauss found that on December 31, 2007, 650 of these families had been assigned plots of land with infrastructure to build their new homes, and another 140 had been offered plots. Zvia Shimon, the head of the Sela Administration for Assistance to Settlers from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria, testified before the commission of inquiry that out of a total of 1,090 families seeking communal resettlement, 741 families had been assigned plots with infrastructure; 30 families had been assigned plots, and were building the infrastructure themselves; and 129 families had been assigned plots in which the infrastructure was currently being prepared. Regarding the remaining 190 families, most are close to agreement, and many of these solutions do not require any infrastructural work. First of all, the commission will have to reconcile these figures with those presented on the first day of the public hearings by the committee of Gush Katif settlers at an early morning press conference. According to committee head Doron Ben-Shlomo, there are almost 1,500 families (50 percent more than Sela's figures) that have opted for communal resettlement. Of these, 580 families have plots (or are expected to receive plots in the future) without infrastructure, and 130 have plots where the infrastructure is currently being prepared. Secondly, assuming that the Sela figures are the correct ones, the commission will have to decide whether the state of affairs today, in May 2009, is reasonable, or whether the government has been guilty of serious failures in finding permanent housing solutions for the settlers. After all, what difference will it make to anyone now whether the government's handling of the situation up to December 2007 was reasonable or not? THE DELIBERATIONS so far also have brought to light the fact that there is a potential optical illusion in investigations conducted by the state comptroller. In other words, if the state comptroller is investing so much time and energy in investigating a problem, he must find a problem. This unscientifically tested principle might apply to commissions of inquiry as well. For example, regarding the question of finding new jobs for the evacuees, Lindenstrauss found fault with various government institutions, including the heads of government companies, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and the Employment Service. Whether these failures amount to a serious problem or not is another question. Lindenstrauss found that in December 2007, of 3,180 potential employees in Gush Katif and the four West Bank settlements (including about 1,100 who had been employed in Israel before the disengagement and did not lose their jobs), 2,764 were working and 416 were jobless. In other words, the unemployment rate of the evacuees was 13 percent. That was approximately 5% higher than the national unemployment rate. Furthermore, on the eve of the disengagement, there were 3,100 potential workers in Gush Katif and the West Bank, including 300 (9.6%) who were unemployed. Today, according to senior Employment Service official Ya'acov Zigadon, who appeared before the commission, 90% of the evacuees are working. So, on the one hand, the state comptroller discovered problems with the performance of government institutions regarding finding jobs for the evacuees. On the other hand, it found that the unemployment was only slightly higher than the national average and almost exactly the same as it was before the disengagement. Is there a problem here or not? These are just a few examples of the issues the commission of inquiry will confront in its work.