JERUSALEM—The parallels between the United States' war in Iraq and Israel's war against Hezbollah last summer are striking: Both stemmed from surprise attacks, both were overwhelmingly popular at their start and both grew widely unpopular as more troops died and victory remained elusive.
Israel, however, has done something the United States has yet to do: Assess what went wrong and assign blame for the mistakes and misunderstandings.
Credit Israeli law and culture for that. Almost from its inception, the country has embraced a candid culture of criticism, despite the fact that it has crippled some legendary leaders, including Golda Meir and Ariel Sharon.
Now Ehud Olmert, the prime minister who launched the 34-day war with Hezbollah, is being called to account by a special commission whose interim report this week could bring down his government.
"We have a tradition: Prophets go against kings," said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, an independent Israeli research center. "It's a society that has an ingrained disrespect for authority."
There are many reasons to think that Israel would reject an invasive self-evaluation process that reveals its internal divisions and exposes its weaknesses. It's nearly surrounded by armed adversaries, exists on the front line of the war on terrorism and rarely has gone more than a few years without some sort of major military confrontation.
That very fact, Inbar said, makes it all the more important that Israel correct its mistakes quickly.
"So what if America loses the war in Iraq?" he said. "If we lose a war, it's an existential threat. We cannot afford not knowing the truth."
At first blush, the American and Israeli watchdog systems are similar.
Both basically allow two tracks to investigate wrongdoing: One in which the nation's leader chooses the investigators and one in which an independent body examines the problems.
There are important differences, however. In the United States, Congress generally creates commissions as part of the political process. Such a commission was created to look into the circumstances surrounding the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Special prosecutors have handled other investigations as criminal cases, including the Watergate scandal, which toppled President Nixon, and the Monica Lewinsky affair, which ended with President Clinton's impeachment.
In Israel, commissions are set up under a unique system that authorizes the country's Supreme Court to choose their members to handle most such investigations. No other country in the world gives that authority to its high court, said Dana Blander, an expert on the process at the Israel Democracy Institute, a research center.
In the past 40 years, such commissions, known under a 1968 law as Official Commissions of Inquiry, have undertaken 15 investigations, probing everything from the fixing of soccer matches to the alleged torture of prison inmates. The Agranat Commission in 1974 looked into military failures in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and forced Meir's resignation. The Kahan Commission in 1983 investigated the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon and declared Sharon unfit to be defense minister.
The commission looking into last summer's war was set up under a different system, however. As a Governmental Commission of Inquiry, its members were picked by Olmert's government under a law passed in 2000. But even though it was considered less independent than a court-appointed panel, the Winograd Commission showed no qualms about criticizing the prime minister and accused him of rushing into war without a sensible plan or realistic goals.
Its interim report, released Monday, led to demands that Olmert resign. So far, his Kadima party has stood behind him, though many say that support might vanish when the commission delivers its final report in August. As many as 100,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv on Thursday, demanding Olmert's exit.
Missing from the debate, however, is any suggestion that criticism of Olmert is disloyal, tantamount to treason or damaging to the morale of Israeli troops, even though Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah praised the commission's findings.
David Hazony, the editor of Azure, a leading Israeli academic journal, said that with nearly every Israeli required to serve in the army, there was a deep empathy and understanding of the military.
"Nobody's going to believe that if you criticize Olmert you are criticizing the soldiers," Hazony said. "On the contrary, Israelis want strong, competent leadership that knows when to fight a war and how. Israelis do not in any way feel like they are helping the enemy by criticizing Olmert."
Hazony said Israel's self-criticism did have its limits. The Winograd Commission was established after the war was over, he noted, whereas the United States is still fighting in Iraq.
"You really have an ongoing situation, where there are efforts being made to actively change things on the ground, and the question is: What is the spirit of the enemy?" he said. "I don't know in a situation like that that you'd have a sweeping investigation of the conduct of the war as a whole."
Israel's investigative system was an outgrowth of one of the country's first espionage scandals.
In 1954, Egypt arrested a group of Israelis and accused them of bombing British and American targets in an attempt to destabilize President Gamal Abdel Nasser's government and force the British to reconsider plans to pull out of the Suez Canal. Two of those arrested were executed and several others imprisoned. For several years afterward, Israeli leaders tangled over whether Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon had authorized their activities.
After Egypt released the remaining agents in a secret exchange, the Israeli Parliament passed the law mandating that the Supreme Court appoint any commissions that would probe such convoluted and politically charged issues.
Uri Dromi, the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Israel's love of investigative commissions might create turmoil but that it was better than an American system that often seemed stymied by partisan politics.
"I think while in Israel the system is less stable and more edgy, we can still stop things before they get out of control," Dromi said.
(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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