Crime: All the difference

Eli Moyal surprised everyone this week by stepping aside while under investigation. Former finance minister Avraham Hirchson could have taken a few retroactive tips from the mayor of Sderot.

By REBECCA ANNA STOIL
September 6, 2007 21:46
Crime: All the difference

eli moyal 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Two headline-grabbing corruption tales - neither one particularly fresh - elbowed their way back into the news lineup this week. And while both cases - the allegations against former finance minister Avraham Hirchson and the allegations against Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal - might seem similar, the devil, to twist the popular expression, is in the difference. The investigation against Hirchson, which came to a climax this week with a police recommendation to deliver a weighty indictment against the former National Workers' Union boss, has been going on for less than a year. Although claims of financial irregularities at the NWU had been under study since at least 2005, it was only early this year that Hirchson's name began to be tossed about alongside such unflattering words as "fraud," "embezzlement," "money laundering" and even "theft." In comparison, police apparently have been keeping a watchful eye on the activities of Moyal for more than a year, after receiving complaints from Sderot residents concerning alleged financial irregularities in city hall. They have allegedly taped Moyal's phone conversations and probed a series of contracts awarded by him and his council to people who were allegedly close to the frequently-outspoken mayor. Both men are media-savvy politicians. Hirchson's political career dates back to 1970, when he took office as the secretary-general of Hanoar Haleumi Haoved Vehalomed, a position he held for the next 22 years. He served in six Knessets, including for 15 uninterrupted years from 1992 until 2007, simultaneously running the NWU for much of that time. Moyal is a relative newcomer on the scene, first elected to office in 1998. Since defeating David Buskila in the Sderot mayoral elections, he has presided over the Negev development town from his third floor office. Reelected in 2003, Moyal gained national prominence after Kassam rockets turned his town into an intermittent cause celebre. It would not be at all an exaggeration to say that the once-upstart young lawyer, 10 years Hirchson's junior, has become one of the country''s best-recognized local politicians. But while Hirchson's political experience outweighs Moyal's by a couple of decades, the veteran Likud and now Kadima MK could have taken notes from Moyal's performance this week. IN RECENT months, crime reporters have been called upon time and time again to write about national figures - economic and political leaders alike - as suspects. We have looked on, together with the rest of the country, as boxes of evidence have been carried out of Beit Hanassi, the Knesset and city halls from Hadera to Lod. On Monday, it was Sderot's turn as, in the midst of one of the worst Kassam barrages in recent months, National Fraud Squad detectives and Israel Tax Authority investigators carried files out of the municipality. If it weren't for the fact that the location was Sderot, the search might have merited a mere brief mention toward the end of the evening news. But oddly enough, instead of allowing the investigation to fade into the oblivion from which it emerged prior to the early-morning search, Moyal took an exceptional tack, one that has rarely been seen at such an early stage of an investigation. He announced that in order not to interfere with the police investigation - so that the "truth of my innocence" might be revealed - he was going to put himself on vacation for the duration. What Moyal did, whether based on an ethical or pragmatic decision, was pure political gold. There is no shortage of politicians under various investigations. But, as former police Investigations and Intelligence Division chief Moshe Mizrahi complained earlier this week, the politicians under investigation remain in office and receive the support of their party colleagues, even as indictments loom. Mizrahi, speaking about Hirchson, bemoaned how in other countries, the mere shadow of corruption - let alone a criminal investigation - sent political allies scattering, leaving the accused a political pariah. But not so here, Mizrahi complained, criticizing the tendency of the high-profile, power-wielding accused and their cronies to attack the police and media while backing up their suspect friend. Certainly, he said, such actions neither deter other politicians from corruption nor help investigators pursue the truth behind the allegations. Painted on such a background, Moyal's decision may even regain him some of the support that he has lost among disgruntled Sderot residents, as well as among the national news-watchers who saw the drama of the search and then the almost-resignation before their eyes on prime time. Moyal, even under investigation, has managed to seem dignified, statesmanlike. Even if he is guilty of the cronyism of which he is accused, supporters will be able to emphasize that at least he took responsibility for his actions - and cleared his office to allow the police to work. And if he is not found guilty, or even indicted, he will be an example of appropriate behavior under fire. In any case, Moyal had already announced months ago that he would not run for reelection when his term is up next year. HIS DECISION stands in sharp contrast to Hirchson's grudging assent to depart from the Finance Ministry (also on leave, at first) only after he was questioned multiple times, once for seven hours on a day in which his ministry was conducting last-minute efforts to prevent a major strike. Finally, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz had to be called on to decide if the evidence against the minister was sufficient to require his suspension. Only following that did Hirchson get the message and vacate. His actions were not exceptional: Moshe Katsav remained president until he was practically pushed out of office. MK Tzahi Hanegbi is still in office, following a 2006 indictment for what then-state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg described in his 2004 annual report as "a crude trampling of the law and of proper administrative rules, politicization of the public service and the use of public resources to advance personal and political interests." Moyal, in comparison, can only look good - a fact the experienced lawyer likely took into consideration when he made his announcement, reminiscent of David Ben-Gurion's two famous resignations, both of which eventually led to political reincarnation. Will Moyal be as fortunate? Will this investigation actually propel him toward - rather than away from - the elusive Likud Knesset seat he sought in the last elections? It is too early to tell which way the investigation will lead, although police have said that it is near-certain Moyal will be questioned at least once before any decision to indict or not is made.

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