Where will the ‘tough questions’ about Protective Edge be asked?

Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Ze’ev Elkin says his panel is the best place to investigate the operation, but other MKs remain skeptical of its ability to handle such a task.

An Israeli tank drives near the border as it returns to Israel from Gaza. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli tank drives near the border as it returns to Israel from Gaza.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like many IDF operations before it, Operation Protective Edge will be examined and inspected, probed and scrutinized from all angles within Israel and around the world.
The UN Human Rights Council investigation led by Canadian Prof. William Schabas – who was derided by many this week after he refused to admit Hamas is a terrorist organization, and said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should be prosecuted for Operation Cast Lead even though he was opposition leader at the time – is being snubbed by the government, with the Foreign Ministry calling it a “kangaroo court.”
Following on from the UNHRC announcement, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira announced he would open his own investigation.
Ten days earlier, while IDF soldiers were still on the ground in Gaza, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) announced his panel would ask “tough questions” about the operation and, true to his word, set the groundwork for an investigative committee this week.
Elkin’s announcement that his committee would probe Operation Protective Edge brought up a flurry of questions and responses from the coalition and opposition: Do MKs have access to all the classified information needed for such an examination? Wouldn’t an official commission of inquiry, with greater executive power, be a better choice? Can politicians really investigate other politicians without bias? As with so many other things in the Knesset, the answers depend on politics.
The investigative committee is not a commission of inquiry, like the ones formed after the Yom Kippur War and the massacres in Sabra and Shatilla during the First Lebanon War, which would be led by a Supreme Court judge and would require the government to at least review its findings, though legal opinions are split on whether its decisions would have to be implemented.
Instead, each of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittees – on Intelligence and Secret Services; Foreign Affairs and Public Diplomacy; Preparedness and Ongoing Security; Human Resources; and others – will investigate its own subject via past protocols and inviting relevant officials to testify.
A new committee called “the forum,” made up of subcommittee chairmen, will integrate all the findings into one report, most of which will be confidential, but will have a section available to the public.
The general investigation will not begin until the operation ends, but Elkin pointed out that as part of its wartime work, the committee is hearing testimony from officials. As such, the review of past protocols began this week.
The final report will be authorized by the full Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The plan is to release the findings by the end of the year, but if they are not prepared by then, there will be an interim report.
Elkin thinks his panel has advantages over other investigative options, because it has protocols of testimony by top government and defense officials.
“We may be the only body in the whole country that will have the real history, not faked history being rewritten now,” he explained. “We have overviews of what officials thought in real time at any point, and no one else does.”
When asked whether another investigative forum would be more appropriate, Elkin said, “It’s our responsibility to do our parliamentary job of oversight over defense and foreign affairs.
Everyone else can do whatever they want. Whether external committees exist or not is not relevant to our responsibility.”
Plus, according to Elkin, “no one cared” what the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War said, since it didn’t call for anyone to resign and the Winograd Commission’s recommendations may not have been put into place, because the panel – like all independent investigative committees and commissions of inquiry – was dissolved after its findings were published.
However, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will be able to ensure its report is implemented, and take relevant people to task if it is not.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” Elkin warned.
Coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) said parliamentary oversight is sufficient and wouldn’t even call it an investigative committee, saying it is part of the panel’s regular work.
As for an independent probe, Levin said he opposes “the culture of commissions of inquiry, in which people don’t make decisions and just make sure to say things for the protocol. That only causes Israel harm.
“We need to learn lessons, not blame people. That won’t bring results... We shouldn’t be subpoenaing people and having them appear surrounded by lawyers; they should be able to speak freely about what they did and what they could have done better. That will bring results,” he added.
“We don’t need an inquisition,” Levin quipped.
MK Nachman Shai (Labor), who is in his second term as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, thinks otherwise, calling Elkin’s plan an “investigation lite.”
“Every war ends with an investigation, everyone knows that, but the battle is what kind will it be,” Shai explained.
Shai posited that Elkin coordinated with Netanyahu to open his investigation early on, to prevent calls for an independent commission of inquiry and to successfully avoid public pressure to do so.
“[Netanyahu] is very experienced and he wants to avoid a commission of inquiry… this is a superficial, partial solution that isn’t transparent to the public. Simply put, it’s bad,” Shai said.
According to Shai, using the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is a move meant “to hide more than it would reveal,” and will not invite the public’s trust.
The Labor MK said the panel should look into the operation, as should an independent investigation with no connection to the establishment.
“Elkin is in the same party as the prime minister, he doesn’t want to bring him down,” Shai said.
A source close to Elkin took issue with the assertion, saying the committee chairman and Netanyahu “have their ups and downs,” and that Elkin nearly resigned from his previous role as deputy foreign minister after harshly criticizing the government for agreeing to release Palestinian terrorists earlier this year.
“Elkin doesn’t hold back criticism of anyone,” she noted.
But Shai had a more general objection to the forum membership: “When politicians are investigating politicians, it’s problematic.”
Elkin, on the other hand, said the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s members give it an advantage, as they include two former defense ministers – MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) and MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) – who is also a former IDF chief of staff; and other former senior IDF officers – MK Mordechai Yogev (Bayit Yehudi) and MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor).
“With all due respect to the definition of a politician, we are a group of people with great experience,” he said. “Any external committee wouldn’t have people at this level. We may be politicians, but we have a lot of knowledge and experience.”
Elkin said each politician’s individual opinion won’t sway the committee one way or another, because the panel is comprised of members of many parties and their opinions cancel each other out.
In fact, there are an equal number of coalition and opposition members on the committee.
Elkin kept mum about the specific topics that will be discussed by the commission of inquiry, saying only that the subcommittees will decide what to focus on and “everything connected to foreign affairs and defense will come up.”
The committee chairman admitted the terror tunnels from Gaza will be a major topic of discussion, but would not elaborate further.
Yet Shai, as someone who was on the committee for years, had much to say about the topic.
“It’s clear the tunnels weren’t given enough attention. We didn’t know the how big the threat was; the fact is that the government agreed to a cease-fire before the tunnels were used. Now we’ve destroyed over 30, but we don’t know if that’s all of them,” he stated.
Although defense officials say they knew about the tunnels, Shai maintained, “just because it was mentioned [in testimony to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee] doesn’t mean they showed what a danger it was.”
“If tunnels were so important, why didn’t they come up more?” Shai asked.
Levin, in his capacity as chairman of the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Secret Services, plans to look into what he says is a deterioration in intelligence coming out of Gaza that the defense establishment has not been able to overcome since the 2005 disengagement.
He also said the committee should evaluate the importance of having troops on the ground in Gaza, which could affect the future of the West Bank as well.
Both Levin and Shai said the panel should probe the army’s preparedness to fight paramilitary organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.
The former thought the IDF may be investing too many resources in traditional warfare against armies.
Shai suggested investigating whether enough diplomacy and public diplomacy efforts were made, if the home front was prepared and if the IDF gave enough consideration to international law.
Those questions and many more will have to be answered by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s investigation in the coming months.