Report card: Livni's action-filled year at the Justice Ministry (pg. 4)

By DAN IZENBERG
January 16, 2006 22:54
4 minute read.

 
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Officially, Tzipi Livni is not leaving the Justice Ministry and will continue to hold that portfolio for the next two-and-a-half months, until Election Day on March 28. Given the demands of her newly added position as foreign minister, however, it is unlikely that she will have much time left over to devote to her "old" job. In fact, the job is not so old. She officially took over her duties at the Justice Ministry on December 7, 2004, describing her appointment by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "the fulfillment of a dream." Livni is a lawyer as well as a politician and she made it obvious that being justice minister meant something special to her and that she intended to put her legal training to good use. Livni received the appointment at a historic moment, nine months before the government implemented the disengagement plan and at a time of growing protest, incitement and even alleged sedition by the plan's opponents. Along with Sharon, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, Livni was an outspoken supporter of the withdrawal from Gaza from the start. Within a month of taking office, Livni had begun to coordinate among all the government offices dealing with law enforcement regarding the public campaign against the disengagement plan. On January 7, 2005, she summoned reporters to the only meeting she ever held as justice minister and announced that she would take a tough stand against protest violence and other illegal activities. The press conference was held a few days after a particularly violent confrontation between settlers and security forces over the demolition of an illegal outpost and the government was criticized for not taking harsher action against the settlers. Furthermore, government officials feared that large numbers of soldiers would refuse to obey orders to evacuate the Gaza Strip settlements. Three days before the press conference, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz ordered police to investigate Kedumim Regional Council head Daniella Weiss and Noam Livnat, head of the right-wing Homat Magen (Defensive Shield) organization. Anti-disengagement forces accused Livni of ordering the state prosecution to gag critics of the disengagement. In response, she warned: "We are in a situation where expressions of refusal to obey orders are gaining more and more legitimacy. When public figures call for disobedience in this sensitive situation, it is a crime and it is correct to order an investigation." Over the coming months, it was Mazuz, rather than Livni, who had to cope from a legal point of view with the demonstrations and often inflammatory language of the protesters. With Livni's support, Mazuz at one point considered changing the law to make it easier to press charges for incitement. However, the idea was dropped. Nevertheless, Livni made it clear to him that the government wanted the state prosecution to take a tough stand. Livni also managed to obtain funding from the Finance Ministry to increase the number of Justice Ministry prosecutors involved in prosecuting alleged law breakers and examining complaints of incitement. Although she had her hands full during these months, she was also involved a number of reforms in the criminal prosecution system. One was the government's approval of a witness protection program, regarded as an important element in the war against violence. Another was a reform in the criminal law system, according to which, each crime in the Criminal Code would include not only a maximum sentence but also an "average" sentence. In handing down sentences, judges would have to explain why they deviated in either direction from the average punishment in accordance with criteria stated in the law. The idea behind the reform is to standardize punishments for similar crimes and prevent the widely diverging sentences currently handed down by judges in accordance with their own personal inclinations. Livni's most sensational "failure" in her year as justice minister had to do with her inability to appoint Hebrew University Law Prof. Ruth Gabison to the Supreme Court. Her hands were tied throughout her term because she lacked a majority in the Judges Selection Committee to win approval for Gabison, and because Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who completely opposed Gabison, refused to negotiate a deal with her as he had done in the past over Supreme Court appointments with former justice minister Meir Sheetrit. Livni's insistence on appointing Gabison, and her refusal to convene the Judges Selection Committee until she had her way, has meant that the Supreme Court has lacked two justices out of 15 for almost a year. With elections on the horizon, it will be many months before these positions, and the upcoming vacancy left by Justice Mishael Cheshin, are filled.

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