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What's A Commission of Inquiry? Explainer

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Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced the establishment of a government Commission of Inquiry to investigate the 'Submarine Affair.' Dr. Dana Blander, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, explains the differences between Israel's various types of commissions of inquiry.

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A Government Commission of Inquiry is established by virtue of section 8A of the Government Law, 5761 2001, which states that a minister may appoint a committee to examine a particular issue or event that is within his area of responsibility, and determine that such a committee will be headed by a retired judge. Since the Minister who established the committee is the Minister of Defense, the committee will submit the report to him.

At the request of the minister who appoints the commission, and with the approval of the Government, the Minister of Justice may determine that a government commission of inquiry shall have the powers of a State Commission of Inquiry. If these steps do not take place, the powers granted to the government commission of inquiry are more limited.

Once the work of the commission is complete, it compiles a report and presents it to the Government. This report may include personal recommendations about individuals it investigates, but the Government does not have to act upon these recommendations. Past precedents indicate that governments do not ignore the recommendations of such a commission.

One recent example of such a commission is the Winograd Commission, which was established to investigate after the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Unlike the current commission, the Winograd commission was granted the powers of a state inquiry commission.

The most serious type of commission is a State Commission of Inquiry, which is an independent committee that is charged with conducting a quasi-judicial procedure. It is set up either by a government decision, or by the Knesset State Control Committee following a report by issued by the State Comptroller. The President of the Supreme Court then appoints the members of the commission [by virtue of the Commission of Inquiry Law 5768-1968]. Such a commission has broad powers including the ability to call witnesses and to compel them to testify if they refuse. This commission's report, and the testimony provided during the inquiry, shall also not be used as evidence in legal proceedings.

The advantage of a State Commission of Inquiry is the breadth and depth of the inquiry it conducts, as well as the entrenched practice that the commission makes recommendations that can be both personal and systemic, and that governments not tend to ignore its recommendations, especially ones that are produced against individuals.

Governments do not tend to voluntarily set up state commissions of inquiry unless they see it as a means of calming public outrage during a crisis. Examples include the Sahmgar Commission that probed the evets leading up to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Agranat Commission after the Yom Kippur War; the Cohen Commission of the Sabra and Shatila massacre; and the Or Commission following the violent events of October 2000.

The third type of commission is an Inquiry Committee as outlined in Section 28 of the Inquiry Committees Law. Such a commission allows the Minister to appoint an inquiry committee for the purpose of examining a matter under the jurisdiction of their ministry, provided that a state commission of inquiry has not been appointed for the same subject. The law does not explicitly outline the authority granted to such a commission, nor its powers, but in the absence of such a determination - the powers of the internal inquiry committee are considered to be narrower than the other commissions that are outlined by law.

Examples of inquiry committees include - the Tonic-Zamir Committee (1987) to investigate what was later called the "ISA Affair"; the Rotensteich-Tzur Committee (1987) after the discovery of the Pollard affair; the Ne'eman Committee (1990) to investigate the bloody events on the Temple Mount; Chechanover Committee (1997) after the failed assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.