Israel is full of state commissions of inquiry these days.
Already, the commission probing the Mount Meron disaster is in full swing and has held weeks of hearings.
Last week, Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev announced the establishment of a commission to inquire into the Gilboa Prison breakout fiasco.
Though it has not yet happened, there is still talk of a commission to probe Case 3000, the Submarine Affair, delving into whether actions and decisions taken surrounding the affair were carried out properly. This would go beyond the criminal case that is already proceeding against many top aides to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but which does not involve him as a defendant.
With these commissions seeming to be the flavor of the month to solve all of the country’s problems, the question is raised as to how much they actually accomplish.
Some may see such commissions as a way to achieve major positive societal change.
Others see them as more of an expanded version of a court case, which means they still cannot, by themselves, solve major, multifaceted sociopolitical or socioeconomic dilemmas.
ONE OF the first major state inquiries that rocked the country and did change its direction in a variety of ways was the Agranat Commission of 1973.
Named for chief justice Simon Agranat, the commission probed the initial failures of the IDF and especially Military Intelligence in anticipating Egypt’s and Syria’s surprise attacks during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Egypt completely broke through the first line of Israeli military units, a debacle attributed by the commission to too much “group think” within Military Intelligence which believed that Israel’s Arab neighbors would not dare to attack, because they lacked the capability to compete with Israel’s air force.
The commission called for the dismissal of a variety of top IDF officials. Eventually, not only did IDF chief David Elazar and IDF intelligence chief Eli Zeira resign, but even prime minister Golda Meir quit (the commission did not specifically go after her, but the toxic politics of the war being deemed a failure dragged her down politically).
The right-wing Likud Party exploded to 39 seats in the Knesset, and the stage started to be set for Menachem Begin to eventually take control from the country’s decades-long ruling Labor Party in 1977.
Yet, did the Agranat Commission improve the military in the critical ways necessary to avoid a similar catastrophe in the future?
Some would argue that the commission and general lessons learned from the war led to an improvement of Israel’s intelligence community by giving the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Mossad more of a voice on intelligence issues.
It was hoped that this “intelligence pluralism” would lead to less “group think” and more frequent raising of dissenting opinion so as not to be completely surprise by an adversary.
At least according to Yitzhak Nebenzahl, author of a State Comptroller’s Report on IDF conduct during Operation Litani in Lebanon in 1975, many of the same problems from 1973 continued to haunt the IDF and were partially responsible for the 21 soldiers who were killed.
The quasi-state commission known as the Turkel Commission for its chairman, former Supreme Court justice Yaakov Turkel, helped in 2013 to usher in some radical changes to the way the Israeli military and the Shin Bet address allegations of war crimes or torture of detainees.
Israeli critics saw the commission as a whitewash, but its conclusions and the changes it helped push through likely assisted Israel in escaping an International Criminal Court criminal probe between 2009 and 2012, likely helped delay the current ICC inquiry opened this past February by several years, and may yet save Israeli soldiers from actual ICC indictments.
Addressing how effective the current Meron and Gilboa commissions will be, Turkel himself said he is “very optimistic.”
While he declined “to get into specifics,” he stated that he has “no doubt that if the [work of the commissions] is performed well, they can make a large contribution” to improving the aspects of Israeli society or institutions that they are focused on.
Regarding the purpose and utility of state commissions, he explained, “We can accomplish the purpose – clarifying the issue at hand – in many ways. State commissions of inquiry are a very powerful tool.”
He did add that “the utility depends on its members, and most of all the chairman of the commission, who need to know the best way possible to navigate” the various dilemmas and multifaceted complexities and interest groups involved in the issue.
But there are examples of commissions that have fallen flat.
The Or Commission, named for former Israeli Supreme Court justice Theodore Or, which probed the highly controversial killing of 12 Israeli-Arabs and one Palestinian by Israeli police during various protests and riots in October 2020, was slammed by all sides of the political spectrum.
Critics of Israel said it whitewashed police actions which should have been declared to be criminal, while the Israeli government at the time largely ignored the commission’s call for new massive investment in the Israeli-Arab sector after decades of neglect.
Unfortunately, most would say that some of the same issues of neglect that led to those riots were also some of the underlying root causes of the riots by some Israeli-Arabs in Israel during the May 10-21 Gaza war (along with the flip-side need for stronger police enforcement of the law in Israeli-Arab areas).
BAR LEV was asked about the purpose of the Gilboa commission, whether he thinks the commission’s effectiveness will be limited to tactical considerations versus broad ones and how useful he thinks such commissions have been historically.
He responded saying, “The purpose of establishing the commission was to uncover the full circumstances and root causes that led to the escape of the six security prisoners from the Gilboa Prison.
“The mandate of the commission will be extremely broad and will enable it to complete a deep probe and to identify all of the problems that led to the failure of the Israel Prisons Service,” he said.
Bar Lev continued, “After submission of the [commission’s] report, including the specified deficiencies and the recommendations of the commission, the Public Security Ministry, under my leadership, will be charged with fixing them.”
The public security minister said, “Over the years, state commissions of inquiry, such as the Ziller and Winograd commissions, led to many important changes and improvements.
“I believe that the utility of these kinds of commissions is very high, and I have complete confidence in this commission that it will arrive at a full understanding of the overall picture of the failures that led to the escape and created an atmosphere in which the escape was possible,” he concluded.
To date, some but not all of the top police and religious officials have testified before the Meron Commission.
Police Chief Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai, then-public security minister Amir Ohana and then interior minister Arye Deri are still potentially on deck, and their testimonies could have a major impact on the commission’s direction.
But it is already clear that to get anywhere, the commission’s members, led by former chief justice Miriam Naor, will need to wade through a universe of contradictory finger-pointing and blame-shifting within the police, within the rabbinate, among political officials and then between each institution and the other institutions.
Real change will require not only backing from the government, but some way to get each of the groups involved to buy into or at least comply with the basic conditions to provide safety to visitors.
The government is expected to formally endorse Bar Lev’s Gilboa commission next week, and the commission hopes to start working in later October.
Chairman and former district judge and military advocate-general Menachem Finkelstein probably knows how to navigate the complex political issues involved better than some who might only have a judicial background.
Former head of the Shin Bet’s counterterrorism division for Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria Arik “Harris” Barbing will give the commission additional heft in dealing with the Prisons Service, the Shin Bet and any other security issues.
He also spent much of his time recruiting undercover and double agents, so he has a high level of emotional intelligence, which will be an asset in solving the human variables of the puzzle required to get the Prisons Service to up its game.
There are still serious questions about how much change these commissions can bring.
But at the very least, they are likely to remind the public and the government of what needs to be done if the country wants to make a better future.