Legal Affairs: Ministering justice

Whether it's because he's been relatively quiet since taking office, or that his predecessor was so disliked, Yaakov Neeman's term in the Justice Ministry thus far has aroused little ire among liberals - in spite of his positions.

neeman 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
neeman 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Perhaps more surprising for a prominent lawyer who understands the elevated status of freedom of speech in the Israeli democratic system, and despite outspoken criticism from across the political spectrum, Neeman defended the so-called 'Nakba bill.' For one reason or another, the appointment of Yaakov Neeman as justice minister in Binyamin Netanyahu's government did not trigger protests, or even opposition, from liberal circles. Perhaps it was felt that (almost) anyone would be better than his predecessor, Daniel Friedmann. Or else there may have been a lingering sense of regret over the fact that Neeman's first foray as justice minister had been cut short because the attorney-general ordered police to investigate allegations against him. The allegations turned into an indictment, which was later rejected by the court. It's also possible that no one really knew very much about Neeman, even though he has been prominent in public life for many decades. As early as 1977, he was a member of the Asher Committee, which established rules for preventing conflicts of interest among ministers and deputy ministers. In 1997, he was appointed head of a committee to find a solution to the dispute between the Orthodox establishment and the Reform and Conservative movements over the conversion issue. He has always emphasized that he does not belong to any political party. Yet, it is obvious that he belongs to the "national camp," since this is the second Likud-led government in which he has served. (After his acquittal by the court, he returned to government, and served as finance minister in 1997-98.) He has long been an outspoken critic of the State Attorney's Office and the police, accusing them of unjustly going after politicians for personal or political reasons, and of leaking details of the investigations to the media. Neeman strongly supported the reforms that Friedmann tried to introduce as justice minister, which included far-reaching moves to curb the powers of the Supreme Court and its president. These measures, which were not legislated under Friedmann, but could be under Neeman, included restrictions on justiciability (that is the right of the court to deal with certain topics, such as national security or citizenship), and the right to reject legislation on grounds of unconstitutionality. Another Friedmann legislative initiative called for the separation of the powers of the attorney-general as chief prosecutor and legal adviser to the government. NEEMAN HAS hardly spoken on these matters since taking office. In fact, he has barely spoken in public at all. For example, during an interview with Israel Radio's Yaron Dekel two months after assuming office, he refused to discuss the current relations between Israel and the US, saying he still had to learn the subject. Nevertheless, in two recent public appearances, a conference on conversion in Efrat, sponsored by the law college, Sha'arei Mishpat, and the town of Efrat, and at the Israel Bar's annual conference in Eilat, Neeman began to reveal his views on a number of key issues. In Efrat, he was clearly in his element. He was invited to speak about the obstacles that the haredi-controlled rabbinical courts have been mounting against conversions by the special conversion courts established in the Prime Minister's Office. The special conversion courts, originally headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, were meant to solve a national problem, by religiously integrating tens of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants. Druckman is a prominent religious-Zionist rabbi and former National Religious Party MK. Neeman may officially belong to no party, but he is actually the only (presently-defunct) NRP minister in the cabinet. After profusely complimenting the founder of the Gush Etzion town for his work in creating the settlement, he warned that the conversion issue needed to be solved immediately, and that he would brook no resistance from the haredi community. His solution, which he said he was determined to implement, was to appoint dozens of retired IDF chaplains to the conversion courts to speed up the process. This may not necessarily solve the underlying problem - the Chief Rabbinate refuses to recognize these conversions when it comes to marriage and divorce - but at least the converts will be Jewish in the population registry. Several days later in Eilat, Neeman reprimanded Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz for publicly expressing his opinion on the police investigation of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Mazuz said the political echelon and the public should have stepped in to prevent Lieberman's appointment to the cabinet - not because he was a criminal, but because there were serious questions about his ethical behavior. Not surprisingly, Neeman said Mazuz should not have spoken in public about a case about which he still had to decide whether to file an indictment. If anything was surprising, it was the fact that Neeman did not make a major issue of it. "This question [regarding Lieberman] is on Mazuz's agenda at this moment," said Neeman in a couple of brief sentences. "I think it is wrong and inappropriate for him to make any statements about it in public. He cannot express what he is thinking inside, before a decision has been made on the case." Neeman refused to link the matter to his own troubles with the state prosecution 22 years ago. On the other hand, he gingerly sidestepped the question of whether he thought politicians who are under suspicion of corruption should be appointed to the cabinet. Perhaps more surprising for a prominent lawyer who understands the elevated status of freedom of speech in the Israeli democratic system, and despite outspoken criticism from across the political spectrum, Neeman defended the so-called "Nakba bill." The bill, sponsored by Israel Beiteinu MK Alex Miller, prohibits public manifestations of mourning on Israel Independence Day, and provides a stiff punishment of up to three years for offenders. Likud politicians - including Bennie Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan - have criticized the bill, and demanded a revote by the cabinet plenum. But Neeman, who voted in favor of the bill, continues to support it. In Eilat, he said, "No other countries in the world have minorities who, on their independence day, express the wish that the country will fall, and want to throw all its inhabitants into the sea," he said. "We endured a horrible Holocaust. More than 6 million Jews were murdered, and I cannot conceive that our independence will turn into a day of mourning." He did not address the question of freedom of speech. But he did make an important and illuminating comment on the 2005 report compiled by former deputy state attorney Talia Sasson on the status of the illegal outposts established by settlers in the West Bank over the past decade. She found that there were at least 105 unauthorized (i.e. illegal) outposts; 15 of them had been built entirely on Palestinian land, and the land ownership regarding 46 others was unclear. She urged that the 15 be dismantled immediately. The government of prime minister Ariel Sharon, who commissioned Sasson to conduct the investigation, immediately adopted its findings. In fact, however, little has been done until now to implement them. THE OUTPOSTS are a crucial issue in the current talks between Israel and the US. Neeman, however, is now calling the entire report into question, just as the settlers and their supporters have been doing since the report was first issued. Like them, Neeman suspects that Sasson may have distorted the investigation because of her political views. Sasson had been a Justice Ministry attorney for many years, and conducted her investigation almost immediately after leaving the civil service. At the time, she had no formal political affiliations. Before the last national elections, she ran on the Meretz slate of candidates for the Knesset. This makes the objectivity of her report suspect in Neeman's eyes. "The Sasson report was prepared by someone who is a political activist today, and one with a very, very clear ideological position," he said. "Therefore, I think we must look into this matter, to see whether there were political influences and if [the report] withstands legal scrutiny."