Narrow interests prevail in debate on attorney-general

Narrow interests prevail

November 5, 2009 22:58

As heated debate rages in legal circles regarding plans to separate the powers of the attorney-general, all of Israel's four largest political parties - as well as some of its smaller ones - continued to take sides Thursday on what promised to be one of the hottest controversies of this Knesset session. At least one party chairman - Labor chief Ehud Barak - seems on the verge of betting the farm on his stance on the issue, while Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni emerged somewhat battered from her attempt this week to present herself as the calm, collected middle road. But beyond all of the partisan discord, the quietest voice of all was that of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who seems to be biding his time in determining the outcome of the conflict. On Thursday, the government delayed voting or debating National Union MK Arye Eldad's draft bill to divide up the attorney-general's responsibilities. Those supporting splitting the office complain that the current situation - in which the attorney-general is responsible both for providing legal advice to the government and also for deciding whether or not to indict government members accused of criminal acts - creates an inherent conflict of interest. But in the political sphere, the grandstanding and put-downs seem to indicate that politicians are less focused on the bill's merits and drawbacks than on old political rivalries. Kadima: The path of most resistance Kadima chairwoman Livni attempted this week to be the statesmanlike figure who would moderate the heated debate by presenting a bill - through MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) - that would offer a lesser split of the powerful position. Livni's plan would partially divide the authority vested in the attorney-general's office. Instead of one position responsible both for legally advising the government as well as for opening cases against government officials, the new position would re-assign the authority to prosecute government officials to a special prosecutor. Other than that, the attorney-general would maintain all of its other authorities and responsibilities and the special prosecutor - who would have investigative and prosecutorial powers - would be tasked with probing matters of corruption and abuse of power among elected officials. According to Livni's bill, the general prosecutor - who would hold the majority of the authority currently held by the attorney-general - would be selected by an external public committee, a system that she hoped would allow for less political intervention than the current process. But the Kadima chairwoman made what seems like a tactical error in leaking news of the bill to the press before she held a discussion on its contents with her own party. Instead of being welcomed as a savior of moderate political debate, Livni instead was slammed by her own party members for failing to inform them - or even ask their opinion - before filing the bill. Late Wednesday evening, Livni met with Justice Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman and told him that she does not agree with his plan to divide up the office of the attorney-general, presenting him her own plan as an alternative. "My solution," she said, "strengthens the legal system and the struggle against government corruption - which I see as holding the highest importance - without changing the foundations of the status and powers of the attorney-general." "Everybody agrees, including the legal experts who are addressing this subject, that the current system is problematic," she added. "But in order to offer a solution to this problem, there is no need to divide up the system entirely - as the Neeman proposal would do - and it is here that our opinions differ." But if Livni wants to emerge as the peace-maker on this potentially hazardous question, she will not only have to convince Neeman, but also heavy-hitters in her own party, including MKs Avi Dichter and Shaul Mofaz who have come out against her "compromise." Labor: Betting the Farm For embattled Labor chairman Ehud Barak, the attorney-general split fight could not have come at a better time. With a Knesset faction so divided that recent meetings have averaged out at one-third attendance, Barak needs to find an issue that can create an ideological ingathering of Labor's exiles - and, say some Labor officials, this could be it. The Labor coalition agreement with the Likud Party includes a clause in which the sides agreed to "work to fortify the rule of law and strengthen the authority of the court" and to "maintain the status and power of the court system in general and the supreme court in particular." Any change to the status of the attorney-general, argue some within the party, would constitute a violation of the coalition agreement. Four Labor MKs, including "rebels" Yuli Tamir, Ophir Paz-Pines, Eitan Cabel and MK Shelly Yacimovich - who is not considered an official part of the fractious sub-faction - wrote a letter last month to their faction members in which they complained that "it seems that the forces pushing for an assault against the status of the attorney-general are no weaker in the Netanyahu-Lieberman administration than they were during the period of Olmert and [former justice minister] Daniel Friedmann." In the three weeks since the letter was written, Barak himself has spoken out during the valuable five minutes of press time at the start of the weekly Labor faction meeting against the attempt to split the attorney-general's role. On Thursday, as the scene continued to heat up, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon - described by party wags as "closer to Barak than Barak himself" - told Army Radio that "if the government decides to divide the role of the attorney-general, the Labor Party will quit the coalition." In taking this stance, Barak will finally be able to deliver an answer to disgruntled Labor voters, who have complained that the left-leaning party has no business in the "Netanyahu-Lieberman government" and questioned the benefit of remaining part of the coalition. Indeed, the attorney-general issue could even provide a basis for peace negotiations - not with the Palestinians, but with Barak's own MKs. Israel Beiteinu: Walk softly and carry a justice minister If it seems as though Israel's third-largest party has remained aloof and uncharacteristically silent during the debate over the attorney-general split, that impression is likely exactly what party leaders would like to convey. With a possible indictment - to be approved by current Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz - hanging over the head of party chairman and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, even the party's top judicial mind - MK David Rotem - is staying out of the fray. Rotem already announced, in September, that neither he nor any other Israel Beiteinu MK would seek to serve on the selection team for Mazuz's replacement in order to avoid any impression of a conflict of interest. But the heaviest partner in the coalition is not without a voice on this key debate. It was, after all, Israel Beiteinu that backed the appointment of Justice Minister Ne'eman, a figure who over the years has been very explicit on his opinions regarding the Israeli justice system. It is Ne'eman who drafted the bill that is most likely to serve as the basis for a split, should the coalition decide to go full steam ahead with the reform. Although Ne'eman was already known for the strength of his ideological convictions - he resigned twice in the past from governments with which he ultimately arrived at disagreements - he sprung into full gear Wednesday after State Attorney Moshe Lador published a 20-page-long letter blasting Ne'eman's plan. "This is war. A war," said one of Ne'eman's close confidants Wednesday. "And Lador may have hauled out his troops, but we'll follow up with tanks, artillery and whatever it takes." But - to Ne'eman's consternation, according to the confidant - his "tanks" do not include removing Lador from his position. Lador, whose appointment was approved by the government, can also only be fired by the government as a whole. And with at least one coalition partner convinced that Lador's opinions are correct, he can remain confident that his job is safe - for now. Likud - wait, and wait, and wait and see Officials close to Netanyahu said Thursday that the prime minister is going to try to avoid, at least for the time being, bringing Ne'eman's bill up for debate in the government or the ministerial committee for legislation. It is increasingly likely, in fact, that Netanyahu will distance himself and his government from the decision, and buy some time in the process, by appointing a review committee including legal experts to debate the subject before any decision is made. But others in his party are not so quiet. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin is expected to give a speech Friday in which he will call on decision-makers to consider Livni's compromise bill as a possible alternative. "It could be that the parade of officials accused and convicted of public corruption in recent years have turned this into a phenomenon which makes the existing model of the attorney-general untenable," wrote Rivlin in his speech, which he planned to deliver Friday morning before the Forum for Society and Justice. "Thus, it is very possible that we must re-asses the existing model, in the spirit of the moderate proposal by Kadima - to partially divide the role of the prosecutor, and to appoint a special prosecutor for handling public officials and government corruption." Others in the party are less moderate than Rivlin. MK Yariv Levin, who won the support of Israel Beiteinu in his victorious push to represent the Knesset on the committee to select Mazuz's successor, has already gone on record in favor of a split in the role of that appointee. Netanyahu is not likely to be intimidated by a limited spectrum of dissent in his party - senior Likud representatives have more than once gloried in the fact that it is a "pluralistic party" that can contain more than one opinion on certain issues. But both inside and out of the coalition party, a great deal of turbulent political water is likely to flow under the bridge before the question of the attorney-general is resolved.

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