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Former Justice Minister Haim Ramon had no choice this week but to resign from the cabinet voluntarily and waive his parliamentary immunity.
Even if he had wanted to, he could not have remained in the cabinet once Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz decided to indict him. In the case of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the High Court of Justice established a judicial law whereby a minister may not remain in office after he has been indicted, even though his guilt has not yet been established.
Ramon, theoretically, could have resisted the indictment by asking the Knesset to invoke his parliamentary immunity. But although he is a veteran politician with many connections in the Knesset, he could not be certain that the Knesset would have protected him, given the nature of the suspicions against him.
And in any case, however, Ramon could not really have hidden behind the parliamentary procedure available to him because of his position as Minister of Justice. He knew that in that capacity, he was a symbol and model for the rule of law, and that he could not try to outmaneuver the very system he had been charged to uphold.
There was also another reason for Ramon's decision. Had he resisted the indictment by seeking parliamentary immunity, he could, at the very least, have staved off the indictment and remained in the cabinet for one month. During that period, the Justice Ministry would have been paralyzed, since Mazuz had already instructed him not to carry out many of the responsibilities of his office as long as he was under suspicion.
During the interim, on September 14, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak was due to retire and his replacement had to be chosen before then. The only person authorized to convene the Judges' Selection Committee is the Minister of Justice. Last week, the government gazette announced that the committee would meet on September 7 to elect a new president and that the sole candidate for the job was Justice Dorit Beinisch. Unlike other announcements regarding the convening of the committee, which are always signed by the Minister of Justice, Ramon did not sign this one.
Had he remained in office, it is not clear that the meeting would or could have taken place.
Even if it had been held, it would have triggered serious constitutional questions. Either way, it would have created enormous embarrassment for a government that already suffers from embarrassment.
ONE OF the great ironies of Ramon's current plight is that from the moment he assumed office, he complained at every possible occasion about the alleged slowness of the judicial process. At the ceremony in which he took over the Justice Ministry portfolio from his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, Ramon quoted from the saying that another Justice Minister, Yosef Lapid, had plastered all over the ministry's walls: "If there is justice in this world, let it appear immediately."
Last week, when Ramon informed Mazuz that he was waiving both the right to a hearing and his parliamentary immunity, he had only one request. He asked Mazuz to see to it that he would be tried immediately, and that there would be no interruptions in the hearings, so that he would receive a quick verdict.
Ramon has more than one reason to want this. For one thing, as he complained so frequently on behalf of others during his months in office, he knows the torment that defendants suffer from long, drawn-out trials, during which their lives are suspended and they are under a constant cloud of suspicion and mistrust. Because he is so aware of the problem, Ramon does not want to become a victim of it.
But there is another reason as well. Ramon is one of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's closest advisers, a person of unusual political acumen and one of the most important and influential figures in the Kadima Party. Olmert has promised Ramon that if he is acquitted, the Justice Ministry portfolio will be his again. But Ramon knows full well that there is a time limit to this promise.
On Wednesday, the prime minister appointed Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit as Acting Justice Minister. But the temporary appointment is only for three months. After that, Olmert will have to make a permanent appointment. Once he does so, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge the new Justice Minister.
But even though he made the request, Ramon knows full well that Mazuz cannot grant it. The separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of government makes such a promise impossible to fulfill. Mazuz has no power over the judicial process. Ramon will now be dependent on the court system, specifically the state of affairs in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, where his trial is to be held.
In a democratic system where all are equal before the law, Ramon cannot expect to get preferential treatment from the court. Just a short while ago, he complained in public about the fact that comedian Hanan Goldblatt will have had to wait 16 months from the day of his indictment in Tel Aviv District Court, on August 21, 2005, until the day when the first witness in his trial is scheduled to take the stand. The court explained that it was too busy with other cases to hold the hearings before then.
Ramon can only hope that he will not suffer anything like the same fate. Had he been able to continue in office instead of getting embroiled in criminal allegations, perhaps, he could have done something so that people like Goldblatt - and perhaps himself - would not face such a predicament.