Tuesday 19 June 2012

Airing the Dirty Laundry in Public

During the course of last week, the Israeli State Comptroller published his report into the events that took place when the IDF halted the entry of the Gaza Flotilla into Israeli territorial waters in May 2010.  The State Comptroller is answerable only to the Knesset, and has the responsibility to supervise and review government policies and operations.  He has looked at the Gaza Flotilla incident by examining the planning and decision-making by the government and the defence establishment in the period leading up to the incident.  The actual military operation mounted, and the unfortunate events that took place on that fateful day when an IDF boarding party was lynched by the activists on the Mavi Marmara, did not form part of the report.  The resulting defensive actions taken by the IDF soldiers on the ship resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists.  These events have been the subject of investigations and well-documented reports published by the United Nations, by Turkey and by the IDF itself.  The State Comptroller has a free hand in Israel to examine and report on all actions taken by the government, and related organisations, and the report into the Gaza Flotilla incident is an excellent example of the extent to which this free hand is exercised.

The report is filled with criticisms of the way in which the Israeli government handled the incident.  Although the actual decision to board the ships to stop them entering Israeli waters is not specifically addressed or criticised, the way in which the decision was reached comes in for a great deal of condemnation.  Even the prime minister is not beyond reproach in the report.  Amongst its many criticisms, the report mainly criticises the prime minister.  He is taken to task for holding informal and undocumented meetings that discussed how to deal with the flotilla in the period leading up to the incident.  It is reported that government officials who should have attended these meetings were frequently not in attendance.  Special mention is made of the fact that the National Security Council, a body established by the government especially to deal with situations like this, was essentially kept in the dark in the lead-up to the incident.  The report is quite clear in holding the prime minister responsible for these failings.  He was personally involved in many of the discussions and much of the planning surrounding the incident, and the buck stops with him as far as overseeing legal and effective preparations for events like these.  No punches are spared in the 153 page report.  Every misstep in the process is laid out in black and white, and has been extensively reported in the international press.

It is common knowledge that Israel has come in for much international criticism regarding the events of the Gaza Flotilla.  International relations between Israel and Turkey are at a low point, and Turkey is determined to extract an official apology from Israel for the deaths of the 9 activists.  Israel has expressed regret for their deaths, but is refusing to issue an official apology.  Israeli soldiers have been cited in a Turkish court action, charging with them crimes relating to the deaths.  In light of these and other international condemnations of Israel, there is a real question as to why the Israeli government has permitted the State Comptroller and the international press to publicise the severe criticism of the senior government officials?  Surely, this can only fan the flames of the international disapproval that Israel continues to experience in relation to this issue.  It may even strengthen any legal cases in Turkish law courts or other international law courts against individual Israelis who were involved in the events.  What is the value of airing all Israel's dirty laundry in public?

The answer to these questions lies in Israel's democracy and democratic process.  As the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel often finds herself behaving in ways that are alien to those countries that surround her.  This even applies to Turkey, which was held out for a long time as the only Muslim democracy in the world.  We have yet to see a state comptroller's report into the actions of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to the Gaza Flotilla, and we are also highly unlikely to ever see one.  In Israel's democracy, however, this is standard practice.  The public demands to know the truth about the behaviour of politicians and leaders, and holds them accountable for their actions.  The role of the State Comptroller is to provide the public with the information that it needs for its evaluation.  This information could potentially be vital ahead of general elections now slated for later during 2013 (the truth is that I don't believe that the criticism of the prime minister has done his election prospects any damage at all).  Although the state's national security is of paramount importance and there are numerous laws that prevent publication of sensitive information, this cannot and does not come at the expense of Israel's democracy.  This is a pillar of strength in the State of Israel in that it is vital for citizens to know that bad leaders and leadership will be publicly identified, and we need only wait until the next general election for them to be jettisoned.  The price of this democracy is that we may be  forced to air our dirty laundry in public from time to time.

If there is any consolation for the Israeli voting public, it is that the examples of poor governance displayed by Netanyahu and his colleagues and discussed in the report, seem not to be uncommon elsewhere in the democratic western world.  In an article published in the Jerusalem Post over the weekend, former White House deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams revealed that similar problems exist in the hallowed halls and corridors of power in the USA.  He said that some of the best meetings held in the White House were informal and not documented.  On the other hand, a formal decision-making process that complies with all governance requirements does not necessarily result in the correct decision being taken.  He used the example of the decision taken by former US President George W. Bush not to take any decisive military action against the Syrian nuclear reactor.  He claims that the wrong decision was taken despite impeccable reports and intelligence having been presented, and all the correct procedural steps having been followed. In this case, Israel was left to destroy the Srian nuclear reactor, an act which is particularly apprecicated these days during the unrest in Syria.  Abrams claims that the most important thing in such situations, is having the right decision-maker, and not relying too much on the process.

The case against any Israelis relating to the nine Turkish activists will surely firstly need to examine the role played by the Turkish prime minister in allowing the flotilla to set out from Turkish ports.  The Greek government demonstrated in a subsequent attempt to convene a flotilla from Greek ports, that it was possible to prevent the flotilla from sailing and avoid confrontation.  Once the boats were already on the water and approaching Israeli territorial waters with hostile intentions, the Israeli government's only decision was how to stop them from proceeding rather than whether to stop them from continuing.  The combination of boats approaching Israel, hostile activists on board armed with all manner of weapons and the IDF determined not to allow the flotilla to enter Israeli waters was always going to be recipe for disaster.  One did not need any special intelligence to work this out, and the Turkish prime minister must surely have known this.  Prime Minister Netanyahu made reference to this fact by saying that, despite the extensive preparations made by the Israeli government and the IDF for the arrival of the flotilla, he was convinced that the Turkish prime minister would not allow the ships to set sail.  He was wrong, and the rest is now history.

As a concerned citizen of Israel, I feel assured by the State Comptroller's report, and by the fact that this has been made public.  We have a right to know, even if we decide not to punish the guilty parties.  Those who have erred also know that they will be held to public account in all that they do.  This is an important tool of a democratic state.  We will need to overcome the public humiliation of the dirty laundry having been aired, but this is a small price to pay for the defence of our democratic rights.  Well done to the State Comptroller.

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