How Israelis Probe Their Failings

Since its birth, the Jewish state has convened unusually powerful commissions to investigate its own mistakes. Will the same happen now, and if not, why?

The first meeting in Jerusalem of the Agranat Commission examining the conduct of the Yom Kippur War, November 27, 1973. Ya’acov Sa’ar, Israeli Government Press Office.

The first meeting in Jerusalem of the Agranat Commission examining the conduct of the Yom Kippur War, November 27, 1973. Ya’acov Sa’ar, Israeli Government Press Office.

Essay
July 1 2024
About the author

Scott Abramson is a historian of the modern Middle East and the senior research officer for Israel and the region at the Center for Israel Education.

“In the post-October Israeli reality, things are illuminated many times more brightly.”—Aharon Amir, “Toward the Second Republic,” April 1974

Ever since Israelis first learned on October 7 that disaster was upon them, their minds have been awhirl with questions. Why was the government so slow to respond? How was the border breached with such ease? How did Israel’s all-knowing intelligence apparatus—whose “contribution to U.S. military intelligence,” as the late senator Daniel Inouye once put it, “is greater than all NATO countries combined”—fail to see this coming?

In the nine months since, enough revelations have come to light to allow a partial response to such questions: border security was left to technology rather than to manpower; a recklessly thin military force was fielded in the Gaza envelope; the warnings of intelligence analysts and the suspicions of field observers were chronically disregarded.

A comprehensive answer, however, is likely to come by way of the peculiarly Israeli institution known as the commission of inquiry. Though government inquests are not uncommon in the states that make up the international liberal order, Israeli democracy reserves a special place for them, so much so that Zev Chafets, the director of Israel’s Government Press Office under Menachem Begin, once described commissions of inquiry as Israel’s “fourth branch of government.”

What’s more, the significance of these investigations, far from being limited to the separation of powers, has transcended politics. Commissions of inquiry have often been the occasions of Israeli national reckoning, opportunities for a stricken country to try to come to terms with its own failures. In the tragic chapters of the Israeli national epic, these investigations have explained to a soul-searching country the mistakes it made on the eve of tragedy, and they have left a deep and lasting impression on Israel’s political culture, national psyche, and collective memory.

Given this significance, calls for the government to appoint a commission of inquiry have been sounded since October 7. This summer, whether the war grinds on or grinds to a halt, these calls are likely to grow more frequent and more insistent. In the past few weeks alone, the voices of the former war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, the opposition leader Yair Lapid, and the attorney-general Gali Baharav-Miara have all joined the chorus. Since early June, the Zulat Institute, a left-wing Israeli NGO, has gathered tens of thousands of signatures for an online petition echoing this call for a commission of inquiry. And just last Friday, the Supreme Court responded to another petition pressing the same demand, one filed by a group whose voices carry much weight today: evacuees from border communities and families of the slain and abducted. The high court responded by ordering the government to provide an answer, within 30 days, for its failure to appoint a commission of inquiry.

In response to this pressure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s line has been the same since it was first enunciated in mid-October: a time of war is no time for an investigation. The prime minister has promised a postwar inquiry, but he has taken care to withhold the all-important detail of what kind of commission it will be. Will it be a state commission of inquiry, the most authoritative and independent Israeli investigative body? Or will it be the similar-sounding but less august government commission of inquiry, whose freedom from political influence and whose powers are more limited?

This omission is no accident. The prime minister’s distaste for investigative bodies, state commissions of inquiry most especially, is as much a secret in Israel as the type of explosives housed at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona. In other words, where state commissions of inquiry are concerned, there is no daylight between him and his national-security advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, who was quoted two months ago saying, “The task of a state commission of inquiry is to bring an end to a government of the right.”

This is explained, in part, by a sense among Netanyahu and his partisans that a commission of inquiry would simply be a political witch hunt by other means. As they see it, the demand for a commission of inquiry is motivated not by good citizenship but by self-serving partisanship of those to his left. (Whether and how widely that sense is shared in the Israeli public is a question we will shortly examine.)

Netanyahu and Hanegbi’s common opposition is also explained  by another assessment they shared, along with most of the military and security establishment. On October 1, the day before Iran, according to the Wall Street Journal, green-lit the attack, Hanegbi opined, “Hamas is very, very restrained and understands the implications of further defiance.” Since the Netanyahu administration, as well as the Israeli bureaucracy writ large, had been invested in this idea that Hamas was deterred, basing its prewar accommodationist policy on it, the prospect of a commission of inquiry that would probe this failure is not one the government relishes.

To understand the looming clash over the October 7 commission, then, it is necessary to understand Israel’s commissions of inquiry as an institution. With this objective in view, let us survey the history, function, and significance of an Israeli idiosyncrasy.

 

I. Where Israel’s Commissions Come From and How They Work

 

One of Israel’s many legal inheritances from British rule, commissions of inquiry trace their origins to a 1921 ordinance in the Mandate for Palestine, the British regime that administered the territory for nearly three decades. Of the many commissions Britain set up during this period, nearly half had the same cause—Arab violence—the same ambition—to reduce or resolve the conflict between Arabs and Jews—and the same fate—total irrelevance. In fact, it was one of these commissions—the 1937 Peel Commission—that proposed the first incarnation of a two-state solution. Then—as in 1947, 2000, and 2008—this compromise formula was accepted by one side and rejected by the other.

Given the futility of these investigative bodies, Britain’s overfondness for them, and the Zionist movement’s grudge against His Majesty’s Government for turning from a supporter to a saboteur of Jewish statehood, Israel might have been expected in its early years to do away with commissions or resort to them less often. As it turned out, the opposite happened: if the British had a predilection for commissions of inquiry, the Israelis proved to have a mania for them. In the first two decades of Israeli statehood, no fewer than 86 commissions of inquiry were appointed, according to the tally of Israeli jurist Avigdor Klagsbald.

Excess was not the only problem with these bodies. The 1921 British ordinance offered little guidance that remained relevant, with the result that Israel’s early haphazard commissions varied widely in their powers, composition, operation, and independence. This ad-hocery typified the general culture of improvisation in a country whose declaration of independence promised a constitution within five months but whose politicians could never agree to adopt one. In any case, nothing showed more clearly that commissions stood in need of reform than the 1954 Lavon Affair, a botched false-flag operation in Egypt orchestrated by Israeli intelligence and carried out by a local Jewish spy ring. For the rest of the decade and into the early sixties, commissions of various kinds, each different from the next, investigated this one fiasco, but they produced more questions than answers and more conflict than catharsis.

The solution was the 1968 State Commission of Inquiry Law. This statute rescued Israel from the commission chaos, establishing and regulating the country’s most authoritative and most independent and most esteemed investigative body, the state commission of inquiry. These panels, their creation authorized by the cabinet and their composition determined by the president of the Supreme Court, probe “matter[s] of vital importance to the public.” In investigating such matters, it is the business of a state commission of inquiry to determine what happened, why it happened, and how to keep it from happening again.

In other democracies, commissions of inquiry are often strictly investigative, their commissioners having no other care than to establish the facts of the matter. Israel’s state commissions of inquiry, by contrast, are not just investigative but also prescriptive, recommending corrective and preventive measures too. To put it in medical terms, their reports are not merely diagnostic but also remedial and prophylactic.

Israeli state commissions of inquiry differ from their foreign counterparts in other respects too. American commissions of inquiry, presidential or congressional, do sometimes make policy recommendations, but unlike Israeli inquests, they are seldom accusatory. The 9/11 Commission Report states in its preface, “Our aim has not been to assign individual blame,” and the report of the Robb-Silberman Commission, appointed to probe the flawed intelligence assessments on which the case for the second Iraq war was made, declares, “This Commission was not established to adjudicate personal responsibility for the intelligence errors on Iraq. . . . We were not authorized or equipped to assign blame to specific individuals.”

Israel’s commissions, on the other hand, make no promise of being non-judgmental. They name names and apportion personal and not just institutional blame, recommending the resignation or removal of high officials. Indeed, commission recommendations have toppled senior officials from their plinths, bringing down a chief of staff, a defense minister, and a governor of the national bank.

Answerable to no governmental agency or authority, state commissions of inquiry lie outside the three branches of government, operating in a kind of extra-governmental no-man’s land where the public good is (at least in theory) less vulnerable to the incursions of political and personal considerations.

The life of a state commission of inquiry has several distinct stages. It begins in the cabinet, which votes the commission into existence and draws up the appointment letter setting forth the investigation’s mandate: that is, the subject and the scope of the inquiry.

Then, the judicial branch, in the person of the president of the Supreme Court, takes the baton from the executive branch and empanels the commission. The law requires that the panel be chaired by a judge—a sitting Supreme Court justice by custom though not by law—and composed of at least two additional members, not necessarily jurists. The commissioners have typically formed a trio, but there have been a few quintets too. As for the commissions’ leadership, sometimes the president of the Supreme Court’s preferred appointee for chairperson is an intimately familiar one: himself or herself. (The chairperson’s surname, incidentally, gives the commission its popular, unofficial title.)

At that stage, the commission, now empaneled, crosses into its no-man’s land, beyond the reach of ministerial or judicial interference.

Despite their judicial complexion, Israeli commissions of inquiry are not tribunals. They neither administer justice nor render verdicts; they are task forces that conduct investigations and issue reports. Their reports, moreover, are non-binding and carry no legal standing. If their recommendations are put into effect, it is the pressure of the public, not the apparatus of the state, that enforces them. Nevertheless, the state commissions of inquiry do possess some, albeit limited, judicial powers. They have subpoena authority, allowing them to summon witnesses, compel testimony, and impound evidence, and they have some disciplinary muscle, which they can use to impose sanctions (usually fines) on noncompliant or perjurious witnesses. The commissions’ proceedings also have a judicial air, as witnesses are permitted to appear before the panel with lawyers at their side.

 

II. The Public View of Commissions

 

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Israel’s state commissions of inquiry concerns not the structure of the commissions but their impact on society. That these commissions should influence Israeli policymaking and state institutions is to be expected, but the impact of commissions of inquiry extends well beyond the corridors of power. Officially, the commissioners might be ad-hoc government auditors, but Israeli society has often assigned them additional, unintended roles, designating them narrators of official history, soothers of collective trauma, and bringers of closure, however limited.

Nadav Molchadsky, an Israeli scholar who has done pioneering work on commissions of inquiry, has studied these historiographical and therapeutic roles. He maintains that even as the commissions are investigative panels in intent, they’re also historical councils in effect, and that their commissioners, while investigators in real time, emerge as chroniclers in retrospect. In recording authorized history, these “non-professional historians” become “effective agents of Israeli collective memory,” and amid the clamor of competing narratives, their voices, amplified as they are by state support, are the loudest and sometimes the earliest to announce the version of history that often becomes the received narrative.

More immediate than the commissioners’ effect on collective memory is their impact on collective emotion—typically anger or grief. Where anger is concerned, Dana Blander, another Israeli scholar of commissions, describes the establishment of a commission of inquiry itself as a “tranquilizer for the public and the parliamentary opposition.” This palliative effect on Israelis of merely appointing a commission was satirized by Ruth Bondy, the first woman to win Israel’s highest award for journalism, who commented, “Like some primitive tribe, we need a ceremony to propitiate the spirits, which in the language of our day is called ‘a state commission of inquiry.’” As for grief, Molchadsky sees the commissioners as healers and offers that “commissions of inquiry should be looked at as part of a wider socio-political process of processing and managing national mishaps or traumas.”

Indeed, “to start processing the trauma” figured among the arguments in the petition, filed with the Israeli Supreme Court last week, calling for the immediate establishment of a state commission of inquiry. Submitted on behalf of in the October survivors and their families, the petition explains how a commission could be a psychic balm for them and the afflicted in general. The dean of the Hebrew University’s Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare helped the petitioners make their case: “A new trauma is upon us, and without acknowledging it, we will not be able to move forward. . . . The establishment of a state commission of inquiry will help bring closure, even if only in part. It may not bring the hostages home, but it will tell the victims that we have moved beyond the immediate event to the stage of investigating and learning, . . . an essential condition for healing to begin, . . . and perhaps most importantly, it will make it possible ‘to cleanse’ the element of failure from the trauma.”

Whether commissions of inquiry narrate history, heal trauma, reform institutions, or remove personnel, their impact on Israeli society would not be possible without the trust that much of the public places in them, trust that, in large measure, may be attributed to their independence. Yet, for all their independence and the popular trust they command, commissions of inquiry—like everything else in or about the state of Israel—do not lack critics. (Hence Saul Bellow’s observation: “If you want everyone to love you, don’t discuss Israeli politics.”) Though in a minority, the critics of state commissions of inquiry are bipartisan and their criticisms many.

One gripe, especially of the left, is that the commissions tend to go too easy on wrongdoers in general and on the political leadership in particular, leniency that amounts to a cover-up. The commissions’ first care, say their critics, is to spare the state embarrassment by suppressing anything that risks national disrepute. When the Cohen-Kedmi Commission released its report in 2001, rejecting claims of a state conspiracy behind the disappearance of hundreds of Yemeni children in the 1950s, skeptics responded that the commissioners had themselves become conspirators, accessories after-the-fact. Then, as in response to other commissions, the critics alleged a lack of transparency, protesting that the report was a whitewash since it was partly classified.

Other critics complain that the commissions are merely exercises in “decapitation,” as it is called in Hebrew, in that they remove the heads of the institutions implicated without reforming the bodies they had formerly sat atop. This was the view of Haggai Eshed, one of early Israel’s best-known journalists, who wrote in 1986, “In all the cases it has investigated so far, they have proved to be nothing more than a guillotine for beheading scapegoats.” Without thoroughgoing institutional reform, these critics argue, removing high officials scarcely makes a difference; put differently, the ship of state remains in disrepair, even if the captain or senior crew are swapped out.

Another objection to commissions is similar to part of the Israeli right’s objection to the Supreme Court: namely, that it is undemocratic for an unelected body to have so much influence. While Americans have recourse to the Constitution when questions about the balance of power arise, Israelis, as we have seen, have no formal constitutional compass to navigate such matters. Yet most Israelis on the right, even those who deplore judicial activism, distinguish between state commissions of inquiry and the Supreme Court, and they have much more esteem for state commissions of inquiry than for the court that empanels them. (There is, however, a faction on the far right that so detests the high court that it rejects commissions of inquiry by extension. One notable exponent of this view is the controversial right-wing provocateur and lawyer Yoram Sheftel, who coined the phrase “the dictatorship of Bagatz,” the Hebrew acronym for the Supreme Court. For him, a commission, conceived in sin by virtue of its Supreme Court parentage, can have no claim to legitimacy.)

Then there is the criticism of those who have a vested interest in opposing commissions: those who have come under their fire. An aversion to accountability is, after all, a near universal attribute of governments. When there is any prospect that an investigation of some kind could uncover a government’s misconduct or negligence, it will see an inquiry as an inquisition and the commissioners as potential excavators of dirt that threatens to sully political legacies. An American example is telling. Despite the devastation of the 9/11 attacks and the need for lessons to be learned, President Bush resolutely opposed any commission of inquiry, only to relent more than a year later and authorize the formation of the 9/11 Commission. Likewise, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, and Ehud Barak all resisted before they relented and appointed, in their turn, Israel’s three best-known state commissions of inquiry: the 1973 Agranat Commission (looking at the failures that led to the Yom Kippur War), the 1982 Kahan Commission (probing Israeli responsibility for massacres by its Christian allies in Lebanon against Palestinians), and the 2000 Or Commission (investigating Israeli police’s fatal shooting of twelve Arab rioters).

This is not to say that the politicians’ anti-commission arguments are all meritless or informed only by narrow self-interest. Spanning the right-left divide, those with whom commissions have found fault have often argued that these quasi-judicial bodies incriminate them but, unlike a proper court of law, deny them the right of appeal. The right-wing Ariel Sharon, whose career as defense minister was ended by a commission, and the left-wing Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was barred by a different commission from serving again as internal-security minister, may have agreed on little else, but they both resented the finality of commission reports. Sharon once thundered, “Every individual, even if accused of an abominable crime, can appeal a judgment in the Supreme Court. With a commission of inquiry, the judgment is a fait accompli. The commission publishes its report and then washes its hands of the affair. As soon as its work is done, it ceases to exist and no recourse is possible.” Ben-Ami, for his part, raged that commissions are an unjust Israeli anomaly: “There is no such institution in other places. . . . The same body cannot act simultaneously as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and ultimate authority.”

 

III. A Survey of Commissions

 

Whatever the merit of these criticisms, they have nevertheless been outside the Israeli consensus—whether they still are, we will explore in short order—and the mass of Israelis has regarded state commissions as watchdogs guarding the gates of Israeli democracy. Since the 1968 statute, there have been twenty state commissions of inquiry, their eclectic subjects ranging from the weirdly inconsequential—game fixing in Israel soccer—to the deadly serious—assassinations, wars, massacres. The direct causes of the commissions have been similarly varied. It was an unbalanced Australian Christian tourist’s arson attempt at al-Aqsa Mosque that led to the 1969 Zussman Commission, a prison break by eight inmates that occasioned the 1979 Kenet Commission, and the crash of the Israeli stock market that prompted the 1985 Beisky Commission. No less varied have been the duration of the commissions, running from less than a month to almost seven years, and the scope of their mandates, ranging from stringently narrow to impossibly broad. The mandate of the 1995 Shamgar Commission, for instance, was limited to probing not the event of Rabin’s assassination but merely the failure of the security services to prevent it. Conversely, the mandate of the 2021 Naor-Berliner Commission, appointed to investigate the Lag ba-Omer stampede that killed 45 pilgrims on Mount Meron, was unrealistic in its breadth. To do justice to their mandate, the commissioners would have had to be polymaths with professional expertise in very disparate fields: engineering mechanics, hard infrastructure, property law, event budgeting and management, public safety, and crowd control.

Nor has there been any uniformity in Israeli officialdom’s response to the commissions’ recommendations. Those recommendations’ effects on policy have sometimes been far-reaching. Israel’s quasi-constitutional 1976 Basic Law: the Military, affirming the civilian leadership’s supremacy over the military brass, was prompted by the Agranat Commission; the mandatory separation of commercial and investment banking came about as a result of the 1985 Beisky Commission; and the 1994 National Health Insurance Law establishing universal healthcare in Israel finds its origins in the 1988 Netanyahu Commission (named after Shoshana Netanyahu, the eminent judge and the late aunt of the incumbent prime minister).

On the other hand, the commission recommendations have also often been ignored—sometimes to catastrophic effect. The unapplied public-safety recommendations of the 2001 Zeiler Commission, appointed after a floor at a banquet hall gave out during a wedding, killing 23 people, are a case in point. In 2015, the state comptroller—whose office, together with state commissions of inquiry, form the twin pillars of government accountability in Israel—found that many of the Zeiller Commission’s public-safety recommendations had gone unimplemented. One wonders whether these recommendations, had they been acted on, could have averted the Mount Meron stampede.

Even if a commission’s recommendations are followed, it is no guarantee against similar disasters in the future. Consider the recommendations of Israel’s best-known state commission of inquiry, the 1973 Agranat Commission, which, again, investigated Israeli unpreparedness for the Yom Kippur War. In response to the commission report, certain reforms were introduced to redress the failures that had exposed Israel to the surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack. Of particular interest are two institutional reforms in the agency that bore the most responsibility for Israeli unpreparedness, Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, known as AMAN.

In the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War, the commission found, AMAN’s evaluative accuracy had been compromised by certain defects in its institutional psychology and cognition: optimistic bias, confirmation bias, a lack of imagination, selective exposure, groupthink, respect for seniority more than merit. As a corrective, and on the guidance of the Agranat Commission, AMAN formed a control unit, popularly known as the Devil’s Advocate Unit, designed to question received opinion in assessments and to promote contrarianism amid consensus. AMAN also adopted the so-called Siman-Tov Protocol, named after a junior intelligence analyst whose situation reports predicting the Egyptian attack were brushed aside by his dismissive commander, which empowered junior intelligence officers to bypass the officers to whom they report and share their assessments directly with other senior officers.

 

IV. The October 7 Commission in a Divided Nation

 

And this returns us to October 7, a day that showed, in all its horror, the limitations of commission recommendations, however dutiful their implementation. Some of the very ills that enabled the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack in 1973 allowed Hamas, a half-century and a day later, to execute an even deadlier surprise attack. The Devil’s Advocate Unit did not overturn the consensus assessment that Hamas had no desire to make war. Nor did the Siman-Tov Protocol pry open the closed minds of the superiors of the “new Siman-Tov,” as an anonymous non-commissioned officer known only by her first initial, V, has been dubbed. For more than a year, V had spoken with dire urgency of a coming Hamas attack, even describing the group’s operational plan in minute detail. But like Cassandra of Greek myth, she was dismissed as a doomsayer before the disaster and vindicated as an oracle after the disaster.

Exactly how these and other safeguards broke down and why so many red flags went unseen and alarm bells unheard, the postwar commission of inquiry ought to clarify. In the meantime, the central question concerns not what the commission will find but what kind of commission it will be. Naturally, if a state commission of inquiry, the weightiest of all Israeli investigations, was appointed to probe crookery in Israeli soccer in 1971, it follows that a state commission of inquiry would also be appointed to inquire into the failures that exposed Israel to the gravest disaster in its history. But the government in 1971 had no reason to fear what a state commission of inquiry could dredge up. The government today does.

To the current government, then, the very different and much tamer animal of a government commission of inquiry holds a strong appeal. Appointed by a government minister who selects its members and receives its reports, these lower-level commissions lack the authority, independence, and gravitas of state commissions. From the standpoint of governments, of course, this is precisely what makes them a more desirable alternative to state commissions.

But if governments, Israeli and otherwise, are allergic to commissions of inquiry, Prime Minister Netanyahu is hyperallergic to them. He has said as much—“I am not wild about commissions of inquiry”—and his record bears this out. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, has been prime minister for 17 of the 56 years since 1968, when the Commissions of Inquiry Law was enacted. Yet no government he has headed has ever appointed a state commission of inquiry; all twenty state commissions since 1968 were appointed by other prime ministers.

So, while Netanyahu will almost certainly appoint a commission of inquiry, the kind of commission is an open question. If a segment run on Israel’s Channel 12 on October 23 is to be given credence, Netanyahu has already settled on appointing a government commission of inquiry, a claim his office has emphatically denied. More recently, the Israeli news site Walla reported, on May 28, that Netanyahu has confided to intimates that he opposes a state commission of inquiry because of who might lead it. It is possible that the president of the Supreme Court could appoint his predecessor, Esther Hayut, who presided over the court during the government’s bid last year to reduce its power; and a state commission of inquiry headed by Hayut, Netanyahu’s foremost judicial antagonist, is the scenario the prime minister is said to fear most.

Today’s Israel is a divided country in which no state decision, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be made without causing a stir in some quarters. Israeli strife is, of course, nothing new, and, considering the fissiparous tendency of the Jewish people, perhaps division in the Jewish state could not have been otherwise. But the rifts have grown wider as the state has grown older. An article in the Israel Law Review even put a number to the increased polarization of recent decades, reporting a 180-percent rise between 2009 and 2022. Then came 2023, which began with the government launching its campaign to overhaul the Israeli judiciary. As the bid for judicial reform advanced, social rifts widened into yawning chasms. Indeed, before October 7 made the year the Jewish state’s annus horribilis, Israeli history would have remembered 2023 as the Jewish state’s “year of division” rather than as the year that brought the deadliest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

Against this prewar backdrop of unprecedented Israeli polarization, American Jews and other Israel watchers outside the country may wonder what effect the dispute over a state commission of inquiry could have on Israeli polarization. Well, the good news—at a time when such news is in woefully short supply—is that there is little prospect that the debate over whether to appoint a commission of inquiry will be anywhere near as polarizing as debate over judicial reform.

In the first place, state commissions of inquiry, as we have seen, enjoy more esteem among Israelis than the body that empanels them. Again, while many on the Israeli right regard the Supreme Court as a leftist, elitist bench and an antidemocratic crosscurrent against the tide of popular opinion, this scorn does not extend to state commissions of inquiry, which, unlike the high court, seldom engage with the issues that divide Israelis most. Many in the Likud party share the general Israeli esteem for state commissions of inquiry. A recent example illustrates this. When the commission investigating the Meron stampede published its final report in March and found Netanyahu to be among those “personally responsible,” the prime minister, speaking in the name of his party, denounced the commission as a “political weapon.” In response, there was something of a mutiny in Likud, and many Likudniks criticized the prime minister for impugning the legitimacy of the commission and for presuming to speak for the party. No less indicative of intra-Likud division vis-à-vis commissions, since October about a third of the Likudniks in the Knesset, including several cabinet ministers, have called for a state commission of inquiry.

The dispute over appointing commissions of inquiry, then, is not so much one between the right and the left or even between Likud and the left. The opposition to the Israeli majority that supports the appointment of a state commission of inquiry is, with a few exceptions, limited to Netanyahu and his staunchest partisans.

That does not mean the coming fight over the commission will be a small or a quiet one. Although October 7 cost Netanyahu many onetime admirers, he still has many, and they are no small force in Israeli politics today, making up as much as a quarter of the electorate. Their opposition to a state commission of inquiry will only intensify as the commission debate gathers momentum this summer. They, like Netanyahu himself, will see the commission drive as a witch hunt, a maneuver to persecute him on the pretense of investigating October 7—a way, in other words, of continuing what they see as years of center-left hounding that animated both the judicial protests as well as the criminal investigations against him.

If Netanyahu does indeed appoint a government commission of inquiry, instead of a state commission of inquiry, and the public backlash is fierce and lasting, as it is sure to be, there are two recent prime ministerial examples he can follow: Ehud Barak’s acquiescence or Ehud Olmert’s defiance. After the October 2000 shooting of the Arab rioters, Ehud Barak established a fact-finding committee with even less authority than government commissions of inquiry. When this inflamed outrage in the Arab population instead of extinguishing it, Barak gave in and appointed a state commission of inquiry, the Or Commission. For his part, after the mismanaged Second Lebanon War in 2006, Ehud Olmert appointed a government commission of inquiry. As with Barak, this raised a popular clamor against him. But Olmert dug in, defying public demand for an upgrade to a state commission. In the end, he not only weathered the outcry against him, remaining prime minister for two more years, he also prevailed against a challenge in the Supreme Court to compel him to appoint a state commission of inquiry. The prime minister’s record leaves little doubt as to which of the two Ehuds he would be more likely to emulate.

If it happens that there is equal determination between Netanyahu and his parliamentary colleagues—him to forestall a state commission and them to have one formed—we may look to Netanyahu’s own history to see how things may play out. As we have seen, state commissions of inquiry are appointed by the government. If a government is inexorably opposed, there is still a way—albeit a more cumbersome and much less common way—for those in favor of a commission to bypass that opposition and have one formed anyway. First, the state comptroller—an independent, apolitical figure—must recommend the appointment of a state commission. Then, the Knesset’s State Control Committee—a body chaired by a member of the opposition—must vote, by a majority of at least two-thirds of its members, to appoint a state commission.

Four state commissions of inquiry have been so appointed. Although none of Israel’s twenty state commissions of inquiry were formed under Netanyahu’s premierships, one nearly was appointed in 2010 by means of this parliamentary work-around. After the most destructive fire in Israeli history, the 2010 Carmel Forest Fire, the State Control Committee almost mustered enough votes to appoint a state commission of inquiry to probe the government response. Netanyahu then swooped in, prevailing on a tiebreaking member of the State Control Commission to vote against forming a state commission of inquiry.

So, if it comes to that, Netanyahu might need to take a page from the same playbook again. Already in January, the state comptroller came out in support of establishing a state commission of inquiry on the failures of October 7. If this support finds its way into his annual report, thereby becoming official, then it will fall to the State Control Committee to vote on whether to act on his recommendation. To attain the needed two-thirds majority, seven of the committee’s ten members would have to vote in favor of appointing a commission. If only party affiliation is considered, it would seem unlikely that a motion in favor could carry, there being only four committee members not in Netanyahu’s coalition. But the rest of the committee’s opposition to a state commission is far from assured. Only one of the six could be described as a Netanyahu loyalist. What is more, three of the six have shown themselves to have maverick streaks, disagreeing with Netanyahu openly and even unsparingly since the outbreak of the war.

It is also possible that a glance further back in Israeli history could embolden Netanyahu to roll the dice and appoint a state commission of inquiry anyway. This would be a wager, but history would give him some grounds for confidence that the outcome would not be ruinous for him. No state commission of inquiry to date has found that the first blame for a matter under investigation belongs to the prime minister. Nor has a state commission ever recommended a prime minister’s resignation. The Agranat Commission Report went easy on the political leadership, finding fault almost entirely with the military and its intelligence directorate, AMAN. Meir did eventually resign, but this was on her own initiative and in response to public pressure. The Kahan Commission Report of 1983 was not quite as forgiving toward Begin, but it only found him “indirectly responsible,” and it did not recommend his resignation. It did, however, call for and lead to Ariel Sharon’s removal as defense minister.

To be sure, a state commission of inquiry would not spare Netanyahu altogether. Indeed, it could be scathing, but as with the Agranat Commission Report, it would likely be much less critical of the political leadership than of the military and intelligence brass: the chief of staff, the directors of AMAN and Shin Bet, and the head of Israel’s Southern Command.

It should also be noted that Netanyahu’s commission anxieties likely come from a concern more about his legacy than about his immediate political survival. It would be several years before a state commission of inquiry even releases its interim report. Even if there are no early Knesset elections and fortune smiles on Netanyahu and he manages to serve a full four-year term, the latest possible date for the next elections—October 2026—would probably still precede the publication of the commission’s interim report.

 

V. Accountability

 

Many Israelis who have knowledge of English and little faith in their governments are in the habit of saying that there is no word in Hebrew for “accountability,” by which they mean that it is no coincidence that there is a lack of accountability in Israeli political culture. The claim is wrong. There is a term for “accountability” in Hebrew, albeit an old talmudic one: din v’heshbon (literally “judgment and accounting”). And Israeli officials are frequently held accountable, perhaps not as often or as fully as they might be, but it bears remembering that in the past twenty years, a prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and a president, Moshe Katsav, have both served sentences in Israel’s Maasiyahu Prison. Ultimately, of course, it falls to the Israeli electorate to hold its leaders accountable; inquests do Israeli voters the valuable service of assisting them to that end.

Appropriately enough, the Hebrew term “accountability” (din v’heshbon), when written as an acronym, means “report.” Perhaps it is fitting, then, that a term meaning both “accountability” and “report” appears on the cover of the final product of one of Israeli democracy’s strongest sinews of accountability, the state commission of inquiry.

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Gaza War 2023, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics, October 7