Why have state probes become so popular in Bennett's government? - analysis

In a government that has a consensus about seeking punishments for its predecessors and not about what should be accomplished now, state commissions are a useful tool.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum, February 7, 2022. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum, February 7, 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Regardless of how long the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett lasts, it will have set three records: most ministers who quit the Knesset via the Norwegian Law (20), most new babies for MKs in office (soon to be three) and most commissions of inquiry.

So far, the government has approved two official state commissions of inquiry headed by judges: one to investigate the Meron disaster, and another to probe the role of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Submarine Affair. There is also a governmental inquiry into the Gilboa Prison escape.

There is a consensus in the Knesset that the latest police cellphone hacking allegations must be investigated. There is only a debate over who should do the probing.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman wants a state commission of inquiry. Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev wants a governmental investigation. Some opposition MKs have asked for a parliamentary probe, and Likud MKs have asked for a “committee with teeth,” either led by or appointed by President Isaac Herzog.

State commissions of inquiry are the only statutory bodies that can take punitive steps, and that is why they have been rare until now. But in a government that has a consensus about seeking punishments for its predecessors and not about what should be accomplished now, they are a useful tool.

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev and Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony of Israel Police (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev and Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony of Israel Police (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid already announced that his fall guy will be Likud’s former public security minister Amir Ohana. Likud officials mocked Lapid’s snap judgment, noting that it is extremely unlikely that Ohana would have ordered the police to look for information on the phone of Netanyahu’s son Avner.

The Likud officials admitted Bennett would only pay a price for the current scandal if he is seen to be trying to whitewash it or is taking too long to set up a formal inquiry.

Netanyahu stands to benefit if evidence in his trial that was obtained improperly is ruled inadmissible. Disqualifying evidence is harder to do in Israel than in the US.

On the other hand, Netanyahu stood to gain more when it was thought that the Spyware program was used only against a state’s witness against him, Shlomo Filber, and not against dozens more people.

The new investigation could end up solving the mystery of who hacked into Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s cellphone email. A similar incident involving Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar could be resolved as well.

But the one definite impact of the new scandal is that Bar Lev is in an uncomfortable situation, caught between his duty to the public and his need for the police to bring results on key issues, such as fighting crime in the Arab sector.

Bar Lev was misled by the police about the use of the controversial software. On TV he denied that it was used, which in retrospect made him look like he does not know what is going on in his own ministry.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli took three portfolios for her party that may have been doomed to fail.

The minister of public security gets blamed for whatever happens in the police, even if there are revelations of misdeeds that took place years before he was sworn in. It is very rare that a public security minister gets credit for anything.

Michaeli’s Transportation Ministry portfolio just leads to her getting blamed for traffic jams that infuriate the public. Any accomplishments take years to see on the streets.

The final portfolio she took for her party is Diaspora Affairs, a ministry whose problems have proven to be harder to solve than initially appeared. The Western Wall and conversion issues and choosing a new chairman for the Jewish Agency have proven unexpectedly complicated.

Michaeli was quick to blame the spyware scandal on Netanyahu and his “steps against democracy.” But her judgment is just as likely to be questioned, as her government continues trying to probe problems away.