Analysis: Immunity is in the eye of the beholder [Oct. 3]

How to protect the nation's interests while properly investigating the PM.

October 2, 2007 22:50
4 minute read.
Analysis: Immunity is in the eye of the beholder [Oct. 3]

Olmert pissed off 298. (photo credit: AP [file])


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It appears that former Shinui leader Tommy Lapid has suddenly discovered a surprising appreciation for the way the French do things. More specifically, according to a column earlier this week in Ma'ariv, Lapid likes the way they grant sitting presidents full immunity from criminal investigations of possible offenses they may have committed prior to taking office. That privilege certainly freed ex-president Jacques Chirac from the distraction of police interrogations while he ran France, despite several serious allegations of corruption dating from the time he was mayor of Paris. He is only now being investigated. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter has also now gone on record saying it would be a good idea for Israel's prime ministers be to granted such immunity while in office, especially considering the constant security threats our national leaders must contend with. National Religious Party Chairman Zevulun Orlev thinks otherwise, telling The Jerusalem Post yesterday: "No normal country would accept having a prime minister with so many criminal investigations hanging over his hand." Whether Orlev - or any of us - consider France to be a "normal" country is open to question. But if your standard is more the United States, it's a different story. No one is above the law for even a limited period in Washington, including the chief executive - so much so that Bill Clinton ended up being impeached because he lied under oath while having to give a deposition in a civil case sparked by an accusation of sexual misconduct that allegedly occurred before he moved into the White House. Orlev feels so strongly about this matter that together with Kadima MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, he has proposed a bill that would require presidents, prime ministers, cabinet ministers and Knesset speakers to step down for three months if they come under official police investigation, after which the police would have to either bring charges or close their probe. This is a serious issue worth serious debate, and one that will indeed be mulled over in the coming weeks as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert becomes the target of multiple police investigations. It would be reassuring then to know that the public figures involved in this discussion have truly thought through the pros and cons, and the principles and consequences, of whether our highest officials should be granted such extensive immunity while in office, and whether an investigation should by itself be enough to trigger removal (temporary or not) from office. Alas, one can hardly notice the not coincidental fact that among the supporters of immunity, Lapid is one of Olmert's oldest friends and strongest defenders, and Dichter has a vested interest in keeping the prime minister in power until he himself has garnered enough support for a serious run at the Kadima leadership. Or conversely, that Orlev's party is the most fervently opposed to Olmert policies, and Yitzhaki has already pledged to bring the prime minister down with him with as he prepares to quit the legislature. Personal interests aside, there's no question that the immunity debate is overdue - perhaps too long overdue. Olmert is the fourth consecutive prime minister to be investigated while in office, following Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon - who was also subject to multiple investigations - and Binyamin Netanyahu, whom the police actually recommended be indicted (a judgment controversially reject by then-attorney-general Elyakim Rubenstein). Despite the distraction of the investigations, all three managed, for better or worse, to keep the country running. For that matter, so did the leader of the world's sole superpower when Clinton was undergoing an impeachment trial in the US Senate. Even with this country's unique security issues and the concerns legitimately expressed by Dichter, it's difficult to imagine any national leader here enjoying full immunity on the French model. Such a stance goes too much against the deeply ingrained Israeli convictions expressed by the so-called Buzaglo Law, the belief that no individual, no matter how prominent, should have any legal privileges greater than those of an imaginary ordinary citizen dubbed Buzaglo (even if this principle is sometimes more honored in the breach, than in the observance). But prime ministers also shouldn't have fewer rights than Buzaglo. The real question, then, is how to ensure that the nation's best interests are being protected while high officials are being investigated, without them losing the presumption of innocence granted to every citizen. Orlev and Yitzhaki try to give the appearance of compromise on the issue, by putting in their bill a three-month limit on any investigation and the resulting official leave-of-absence. The problem is that a prime minister dependent on parliamentary support is not a president with a guaranteed term of office; most premiers, and certainly the current one, are unlikely to politically survive even a temporary suspension of that length. If Orlev and Yitzhaki really wanted to appear objective on this issue, and not as if they were specifically targeting Olmert, they could add a proviso that their new law not take effect until after the next election. After all, democratic governments very rarely pass laws that impact on the current terms of office of elected officials, as that would appear to invalidate the results of previous elections. (They might also have broadened the scope of the bill to have its provisions apply to the ordinary MKs who have to approve it, although given the rate at which MKs fall under police investigation nowadays, you might need a traffic cop to supervise all the comings and goings of lawmakers taking leaves of absences.) Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen, though. Expect instead to see quite a bit of political posturing on the immunity issue in the next few weeks, as the investigations against Olmert get under way. Which is a shame - because the question of prime ministerial immunity will continue to be a matter of great importance here, long after the current one, for one reason or another, leaves office.

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