(photo credit: AP)
The political hornet's nest stirred by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's decision to launch a criminal investigation against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on suspicion of bribery, emanating from the Cremieux Street house affair, has spawned two proposals based on the assumption that a prime minister beset by legal travails is hard pressed to do his job.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter maintains that probes into a prime minister's conduct, over alleged misdeeds committed before he took office, must be "frozen until after his term" lest they impede his ability to concentrate on running the government. Amid much political uproar, Dichter is now stressing that his proposal is intended to apply only to future prime ministers, not to Olmert, who faces two more such potential legal hurdles - the Bank Leumi sale and alleged cronyism while he served as industry and trade minister.
A contradictory initiative comes from former coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima) and Knesset State Control Committee Chairman Zevulun Orlev (NRP), who this week introduced a bill that would mandate a three-month suspension for holders of high executive office in the event formal criminal investigations are initiated against them. Such investigations would have to be concluded within this time limit.
Both proposals are dangerous. To deal first with the Orlev-Yitzhaki bill, its proponents need to consider the ease with which political foes of any future premier would be able to remove him, even if only temporarily. It would take mere accusations - scantily substantiated, if at all. Trumped-up allegations and a hostile media could override the voters' choice even without indictment.
The precedents are plain: It is now widely acknowledged that Ya'acov Ne'eman and the late Rafael Eitan lost the Justice and Police portfolios, respectively, because of charges so unfounded they were tossed out of court straight off. And in their cases, suspension did not follow the mere opening of a criminal investigation, but actual indictment. Frivolous as the Eitan and Ne'eman indictments were, it would be foolhardy to forgo this prerequisite before imposing suspension from office. This is a sure-fire recipe for political dirty tricks and instability.
Dichter's proposal is more dangerous yet. Indeed, it grates against the basic premise of equality before the law, as it would grant a prime minister special dispensations unavailable to others. The fact that Dichter, the minister in charge of law enforcement, is essentially suggesting immunity for the premier should in itself cause concern.
Dichter bases his pitch on the model used by France, where for seven years the president is not answerable to the law. Nigeria too boasts such dispensations. But these are hardly privileges for Israel to emulate. The French may be unperturbed by the fact that upon leaving office their presidents frequently find themselves in legal hot water, but few other nations countenance their example.
Former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi sought to avail himself of a similar exemption, but the Italian Supreme Court would have none of it. Had the US implemented a hands-off policy towards serving presidents, Richard Nixon would have completed his term and no move toward impeachment procedures would have been possible against Bill Clinton. But no American ever dared argue that there should be different legal standards for different categories of citizens. The very notion is abhorrent to all who cherish democracy.
Dichter contends that "no elected representative is superman. The state is led by men of flesh and blood." In other words, there are skeletons in all political closets. That too is a dangerous presumption because it offers a moral waiver a priori to any candidate. The public has the right to expect that leaders who oblige the people to play by the rules do so themselves no less rigorously, and are promptly and properly held to account if they do not.
Based on the ministerial precedents, it has always been assumed that a prime minister would have to suspend himself if indicted. By extension, it is assumed that the state prosecution would not lightly take a decision to indict the elected leader of the nation.
This is the appropriate balance, and it should determine developments in the cases against Olmert and for all future prime ministers. The proposals from Orlev and Yitzhaki on the one hand, and from Dichter on the other, would skew that balance unacceptably.