Analysis: A grudge match in the battle for Beinisch's authority

The Winograd petition could have been a landmark case for freedom of information, but instead became a power struggle of legal heavyweights.

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April 17, 2007 23:32
3 minute read.
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It could have been a landmark case for freedom of information. Publishing the protocols might also have caused the government and assorted senior defense officials untold embarrassment and given us a clearer picture of the chaos that reigned in the highest echelons of power throughout the Second Lebanon War. Instead, Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On's petition asking the High Court of Justice to order the Winograd Committee to release the testimonies of its principal witnesses has turned into a showdown between legal heavyweights over the Supreme Court's authority, and especially over the prestige of its new president, Dorit Beinisch. Gal-On shouldn't be blamed for this outcome. She was simply doing her duty as an opposition parliamentarian - causing trouble for the government and trying to shed light on information that the powers that be would prefer remains in the dark. But she obviously had no intention to cause so much damage to her beloved court. The opposition to publishing the testimonies was originally seen as politically motivated - an attempt by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other senior ministers and generals to ensure that what they told the committee in private, and what other witnesses said about them, would not become public for the next few decades. But now it seems to be about something totally different. The members of the commission, especially Hebrew University law Prof. Ruth Gavison (who seems to be spearheading their opposition to immediately publishing the testimonies), can hardly be charged with being political cronies, prepared to defend Olmert and co. from the High Court. What they can be accused of is spoiling for a fight with the court over who has the last word on how the war's mismanagement should be investigated. It is a confrontation that combines old grudges and rivalries with matters of principle. In this, again, Gavison is a principal combatant. Former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak barely managed to hide his ambition to be appointed chairman of a State Commission of Inquiry into the war; it would have been a fitting crescendo with which to end his decades on the bench. Olmert's insistence on setting up a government-appointed committee instead still rankles with Barak's acolytes on the court, chief among them Beinisch. This might well have affected the forceful manner in which the court responded to Gal-On's petition; Beinisch this week even berated her own former underlings in the Justice Ministry for dragging their feet over the publication of the testimonies. What is still unclear is why the court has been so insistent on immediate publication. Why has it found unreasonable the argument of the committee's members that to publish them before the first part of their report would damage their work? It's hard not to get the feeling that the Beinisch court is also eager to show Winograd's group who's the boss. On the other hand, the committee's conduct is also not free of personal motives. Gavison, whose strong candidacy for a seat on the Supreme Court was blocked two years ago by a united front of Barak and Beinisch, holds the current justices in low esteem, starting from the top. Doubtless she has real reasons to insist on delaying publication of the testimonies, but she could also be accused of seeking to teach the court a lesson. Neither is Eliahu Winograd, who served on the Tel Aviv District Court for 19 years, enamored with the institution that allowed him only a brief, temporary appointment in its exalted halls. Never seen as a divisive figure in the past, at the age of 81 he might be ready to lead his forces into a constitutional crisis. But Beinisch remains the main focus. Just as she is the target of iconoclast Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, who before his recent appointment openly derided her judicial stature, so her low level of prestige is now the main reason the Winograd members feel capable of defying the Supreme Court, even threatening to resign should the justices rule against their wishes.

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