This week a three judge court decided, unanimously, on a verdict of not guilty for Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman.
This was the latest, and maybe the last chapter in a saga of police investigations, the pondering of prosecutors about issuing indictments, and finally a trial that has gone on by some calculations for 14 years.
The latest case was among the lightest of the accusations against Lieberman. It was alleged that, as Foreign Minister, he improperly accepted documents concerning a police investigation of his financial dealings from Israel''s ambassador to Belarus, and in exchange used his influence to appoint the man ambassador to Latvia.
The judges included in their decision a reprimand of Lieberman for improper behavior, but ruled that his actions did not cross the line to criminal guilt.
Next week Lieberman will return to his post as foreign minister, from which he had to step down when indicted.
Commentators are directing their barbs both at prosecutors and Lieberman. The charge is that prosecutors flubbed a more weighty case against Lieberman of financial corruption, and made a charge in the more recent incident of violating public trust and undue influence in order to salvage something from years of investigations.
Relevant to all this, and cases to be noted below, is a book written years ago by my friend Malcolm Feeley, The Process is the Punishment.
Feeley wrote on the basis of research about criminal justice in the United States. He dealt with urban ghettos and their high incidence of criminal violence and other illegalities, where mostly young men go from the street to police lock up and maybe the courts, then back to the streets, where after a short time they are back in the lock-up in a cycle that may end eventually in early death or--for the lucky ones--maturing to a life of lesser or no criminality. For many, the complexities of law allow them to avoid a guilty verdict and prison time, or crowding in prisons sees them released after serving only part of a sentence. Whether decided as guilty or not, the process is considerable punishment.
Is it enough? Is it justice?
Those are weighty questions alongside the realities of ghetto life, and the limited resources of police, prosecutors, courts, and prisons.
Likewise in Israeli politics.
Even more spectacular than Lieberman''s cases are those brought against former Jerusalem mayor then finance minister and ultimately Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and numerous others, including another former mayor Uri Lapolianski. The focus of investigations, indictments and an ongoing trial that are now more than five years in process concerns bribery for the sake of favorable decisions about a major property development. Also in Olmert''s file are other charges dealing with his activities in various public positions, including receiving multiple payments for overseas trips, and the receipt of cash-filled envelopes from a character who was alleged to have brought them from overseas entrepreneurs having interests in Olmert''s official decisions.
The most obvious punishment in these processes are the national office-holder having to resign if a prosecutor decides on an indictment for criminal charges. A Knesset Member can continue in office while under indictment, but not hold a ministerial appointment. The law is unclear, and currently in flux, about a city mayor who has been indicted.
Along with the forced resignation of ministers, and no less severe, are the years of anguish and outlays for legal defense (perhaps covered by donations in the case of politicians who have done favors in the past and might do favors again in the future), and whatever other problems fall on the individual and family members.
Charges against Olmert include his directing substantial sums improperly received to a younger brother. Dr. Yossi Olmert is an accomplished scholar with an expertise in the Middle East who was tempted to begin his own political career. He failed in efforts to win a Knesset seat and the mayor''s office in Ra''anana, and along the way acquired heavy debts (said in one account to be $600,000) to shady characters that led him to declare bankruptcy and leave Israel out of concern for his safety. The trial record and media reports portray brothers--both with substantial public reputations--testifying and commenting against one another.
Uri Lapolianski was Jerusalem''s ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor under Olmert and then won his own term as mayor. Previously he had created an organization with branches in numerous cities and Arab villages, Yad Sarah, which does what is widely viewed as the good work of loaning or selling at reasonable cost medical devices (e.g.., crutches, hospital beds, and more sophisticated equipment) to individuals in short-term or long-term care, and providing an expanding range of other social services. Lapolianski is claiming that he received no personal payments while in public office, but accepted donations from individuals mentioned in the indictment to support the work of Yad Sarah.
Those wanting a fuller story of ranking politicians who have spent years under police investigation and occasional sittings of court and in some cases prison, might Google Ariyeh Deri, Shlomo Benizri, Tzachi Hanegbi, and Avraham Hirchson. Charges against them concern money and favoritism. For the nastier stuff of sexual exploitation extending to rape, the address is former President Moshe Katsav.
The lighter side of wrongdoing in high places involves charges against Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who in a spurt of emotion on a public platform gave an unwanted French kiss to a female soldier while presenting her with an award, former Governor of the Bank of Israel Jacob Frankel who withdrew his candidacy for another term due to reports that he took a ;piece of luggage from a Duty Free shop in the Hong Kong airport without paying, and most recently the unsuccessful candidate for Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion, who was delayed at the Customs Post of Ben Gurion Airport for several hours after attempting to enter the country without paying duty on several thousand dollars worth of clothes.
I''ll leave to others to judge--ideally as the result of serious research--whether Israeli politicians score above or below those of other democracies on various scales of morality.
What appears most obvious is the long process of Israeli justice, called in Hebrew עינוי דין (torture by judges). The equivalent worry in English is that justice delayed is justice denied.
Explanations are elusive. They include overworked judges and lawyers, who agree with one another on only occasional sittings of court and long continuances, as well as requests by defendants who--in these cases--are allowed considerable freedom of movement during the years of investigations, the pondering of indictment by prosecutors, and court proceedings.
Part of the explanation may also lie in our Jewish roots, going back to lengthy and detailed arguments in the Talmud about the intentions of alleged wrongdoers, the reliability of testimony and other evidence. The rabbis were concerned for the clarity of law and procedure that would prevent the punishment those not clearly guilty. They sought to define rules for criminal procedures, and left several knotty points unresolved.
The process can go beyond the years required for an initial verdict. Judges'' announcement of punishment may only occur some months after a guilty verdict, and as a result of further deliberations and delays. Then both prosecutors and defense attorneys have some months to consider filing appeals, which themselves involve lengthy consideration in higher courts. Former President Moshe Katsav already failed on one appeal to the Supreme Court, and now from prison has hired another crew of attorneys to file an additional appeal on the claim of faults in earlier procedures.
Going back to the kinds of cases considered by Professor Feeley, here we are dealing not with street criminals whose punishments may include beatings by police and greater violence at the hands of fellow inmates in city jails while awaiting trial.
In some of the cases noted above, an indictment and trial effectively ended a political career, whether or not there was a verdict of guilty. One former minister committed suicide. In other cases, a career has resumed after a verdict of not guilty, or even a guilty verdict and prison sentence. The media, public opinion, voters, and political colleagues are the ultimate judges.
Ariyeh Deri returned to the Knesset and SHAS party leadership after a term in prison. Avigdor Lieberman has remained a Knesset Member while under indictment and trial, and will be in the distinguished position as Foreign Minister after the verdict of not guilty. Yet both carry the stains caused by years of public discussion about their behavior that may limit their influence on the decisions they wish to shape.