Israel’s unaccountable executive

My op-ed in the Jerusalem Post today discusses the serious problem of Israel’s accountability mechanisms, in the context of the Carmel fire:

No society is perfect, but democratic nations are able to examine themselves and learn from their errors. Strong countries are not afraid of admitting mistakes.

Democracy’s underlying premise – that government is the servant of the governed – relies on a commitment to self-scrutiny. Unfortunately, in Israel the lack of a proper culture of accountability has been demonstrated in several recent developments.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s extraordinary – and eventually successful – efforts to avert a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the Carmel fire disaster, is a case in point. In Israeli parliamentary democracy, the government is supported by a coalition with a majority in the Knesset, making it very difficult to pass inconvenient measures that would scrutinize government actions, a testament to Israel’s weak culture of accountability.

Netanyahu’s intervention is a further blow to the Knesset’s ability to exercise a check on government excess and incompetence.

Unfortunately, that is not the first time a governing coalition has undermined parliamentary independence. The squabbles between Netanyahu and MK Reuven Rivlin, the Knesset speaker (Likud), over the ability to debate and amend economic reform legislation are a demonstration of that trend.

Another instance occurred in the beginning of the government’s term, when the coalition managed to choose MK Uri Ariel (National Union) to serve as the opposition’s representative on the committee that appoints judges, instead of Ronnie Bar-On (Kadima), the Knesset member favored by most opposition members.

Uri Ariel was also the sway vote in a decision to avoid a parliamentary inquiry into the Carmel fire.

The very fact that a parliamentary inquiry was the only course of action on the table should be cause for concern. In the past, such events would have been examined by a state committee of inquiry, headed by a former High Court justice, appointed by the president of the High Court. The last committee of this type was the 2001 Or Commission appointed with investigating the events of October 2000 in which 12 Arab citizens of Israel and one Palestinian were killed.

Since then, such committees have only been established by the Knesset. A situation was created in which, when faced with public pressure for inquiry, governments have preferred to elect their own inquisitors.

The Winograd Committee, established to investigate the failings of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, did not turn out so well for the Olmert government which had created it.

The Turkel Committee, appointed to investigate the response to the Gaza Flotilla in May 2010, in which nine people died, may be a different story. Recently, while questioning a witness, one of its members accidentally intimated that he has already made up his mind about the very questions the committee was set up to answer.

UNDER THESE circumstances, the burden falls on other institutions. The State Comptroller, already overburdened and overextended, is supposed to monitor the entire gigantic bureaucracy with relatively limited resources. The legal system was never designed to address the broad need for accountability. Even in the criminal sphere, it achieves poor outcomes, especially when it comes to offenses committed against vulnerable populations, such as minorities or women. Non-governmental organizations do valuable work, but have no authority and limited access to necessary information.

Moreover, all of these nominally independent institutions have come under severe attack from recent Israeli governments. Some have even gone so far as to attempt to pass legislation, or take diplomatic actions, in order to undermine the funding or independence of these bodies and groups.

That should be a cause for concern for all Israelis. No society is perfect, but democratic nations are able to examine themselves and learn from their errors. Strong countries are not afraid of admitting mistakes and engaging critics. The government would do well to ensure that scrutinizing bodies are kept independent of the Knesset, and to end attacks on NGOs, the legal system and the State Comptroller.

By that measure, the undermining of accountability moves us away from democracy, and weakens us.