Sunday, September 2, 2012

What does ministerial responsibility mean?

Much of the media attention given to our Munich Massacre publication last week focused on the Israeli ire at Germany - justified ire, one must say. Yet a big chunk of the publication actually dealt with Israeli discomfort with its own failings, especially when it came to protecting the Olympic delegation. The feeling that the Israeli preparations had been lacking led to the creation of the Koppel Committee, which found that the Israel Security Agency (ISA) had in fact not functioned adequately.

On the 5th of October 1972 Prime Minister Golda Meir and five of her top mnisters met in her office to discuss what should be done with the Koppel report. It was a year and a day before the 6th of October 1973. And the 6th of October 1973 was a day on which Israeli history changed, and Israeli society set out on a course which was previously unforeseen, and has proved to be unstoppable ever since. The 6th of October 1973 was Yom Kippur, and the first day of the Yom Kippur War, and that war forever smashed the willingness of Israel's mainstream citizens to assume that the government knows best.

The 5th of October 1972, however, was before the Yom Kippur War, and Golda and her top ministers were blithely unaware of the future, and probably quite sincere in their rejection of the tone of the Koppel report. Yet we, the latter-day readers of the stenogram of their discussion: we are living after the Yom Kippur War, and try as we may, it's almost impossible for us to listen to their discussion without thinking about how bad the story was going to end, a year later.

Yakov Shimshon Shapira, for example, the minister of justice, called the document "strange". What were they thinking, its author's, when they implied ministerial responsibility?
I cannot imagine anyone claiming a minister is responsible for the actions of a security officer, for the simple reason that no minister has the qualifications to judge what the security officers do. I opened a court in East Jerusalem. So I called the security officer and said to him "listen fellow, we're opeing a branch in east Jerusalem, someone has to protect the judges from potential attack", and that's it. I've finished my job. I don't know how he'll go about doing his job?!
I suggest we deal with this report by preparing a summary and giving it to the cabinet ministers an hour before the next cabinet meeting. Then we'll repeat the excerise when we go to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.
The report contains a statement which doesn't make any sense to me: "In spite of the German conception about guarding the Olymic village [or not guarding it], we should have found a way to guard our people from within the village and without conflicting with the German conception". For me, this is Greek. I don't understand it. It's either one or the other: The Germans were responsible, or they weren't. On what basis does the committee say that had we asked the Germans, they would have done things differently? [...]
In general, it's important not be wary of hindsight. I mean, it's essential that one gains experience for future use, but using hindsight to evaluate actions: that's a dangerous thing to do.
I'm not an expert, but I assume lots of thought was put into preventing the sort of thing that happened. The attempt by the committee to place responsibility on the security officers seems to me unfair.
Golda Meir:
Here's how I see it. No one ever promised never to fail. Even when we have a long period of calm, it wouldn't be serious to get up and say we'll always have calm. [...]
We've had this terrible incident with 11 murdered men. No one can say that if we'd asked the Germans to guard the area differently they might not have; and no one can say that if they had, the attack wouldn't have happened. "Would have" is a slippery concept. But the fact is that we didn't ask them. In their report the Germans say that even if they had guarded the installation the result would have been the same. So they said? So what?

So what do we do now? I promised in the Knesset that the report would be published.
Yisrael Galili: No.
Golda: No what?
Galili: Not accurate.
Golda: What's not accurate?
Galili: You said the findings would be published, not necessarily the report itself.
Golda: No matter. I'll have to make the essential findings public. That's the law.
But first, we have to assure that the ISA isn't harmed. They're doing an excellent job. True, there are failures here and there, but there are far more successes, and they don't deserve to be castigated.
Golda then went into a discussion about spheres of authority between the ISA and particular ministries, eventually moving towards the idea that the minister in charge of the ISA is responsible. She rejected the idea that
Nothing more could have been done: lots more could have been done. And somebody has to pay for important things that weren't done. The question is, how high up the ladder does the responsibility climb? In this case, it wasn't simply a matter of standard procedures. This should have reached the minister who's in charge of the agencies [the ISA... i.e, the prime minister!] A minster can inquire what's going on, or refrain from inquiring. The security officer can actively try to find out what's going on, or he can refrain from action. If  he fails, he should pay. But what are there ministers for? Not every minister needs personally to do everything in the minstry, that's ridiculous. But he must know what's going on. Certainly in matters which are this important. Therefore, if I was just an ordinary minister, I woldn't hesitate and I wouldn ask anyone. But it's bad and bitter that if I resign the entire government will fall and we'll be drawn into a political crises on this matter of 11 murdered men.
Thus far the document.

My colleague who calls herself Archivista on this blog, and who knows lots more than I about these historical events, warns me of the danger of hindsight and of reading our understanding of things into the words of people who lived in different times. She may be right. Yet I respond that it was only one single year later that the smug self satisfaction of these very same historical actors got us into much greater trouble, and perhaps these deliberations are a demonstration of how that smugness should have been recognized even then.

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