Analysis: The debate - Who should be a minister?

Presumption of innocence versus public confidence.

lieberman loves mother russia 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
lieberman loves mother russia 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
In his criticism of the attorney-general for publicly declaring that Avigdor Lieberman should not be serving in the government, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman made two points clear. First of all, he said unequivocally that Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz should not have expressed himself publicly on Monday regarding Lieberman, since there is a police investigation going on and he will ultimately have to decide whether or not to indict the foreign minister. As long as the case is pending, Neeman said on Tuesday, Mazuz should not talk about it. However, the usually frank and outspoken lawyer and minister made his second point by default. Asked whether he thought it was wrong for people under criminal investigation to serve in the cabinet, Neeman replied that it all depended on the individual case. That is as far as he would go. The fact is, however, that there is only one minister in the government under criminal investigation - Lieberman. Neeman, obviously, did not want to comment on this particular individual case. There was no real need to. The fact that he joined a government with Lieberman makes it obvious he sees nothing wrong with it. Neeman is not the only one. The question of where to draw the line in determining when a person is ineligible to sit in the cabinet (or hold high office in general) is a controversial one. According to the law, only someone who has been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude and sentenced to prison may not serve in the cabinet, for a period of seven years. The High Court took matters one step further, ruling in the cases of former Shas ministers Aryeh Deri and Raphael Pinhasi that it was enough that they had been indicted to oblige them to resign. Some say the court went too far in that ruling, others that it did not go far enough. The debate has raged over the past few years around the state's two most senior officials, former president Moshe Katsav and former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Both were suspected of serious crimes. During the police investigations, many people called for their resignation. But they, their lawyers, and may others, not necessarily their supporters, maintained that they were innocent until proven guilty and should not be punished before they were even charged with a crime. Katsav managed to hold out until his lawyers and the state agreed on an indictment as part of a plea bargain. Olmert hung on for a number of years but finally resigned before a single indictment had been filed. One element was sorely missing from the debate over these years. Perhaps few people today remember that on June 25, 2006, Olmert appointed a committee headed by former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar to formulate rules of ethics for ministers. The committee, which also included Tel Aviv University professor Asa Kasher and current UN Ambassador Gabriella Shalev, submitted the completed booklet of rules to the cabinet secretary in May 2008. It has never been discussed or made public. However, according to reports, the committee wrote that the principle of presumption of innocence must be balanced against the need for proper conduct as reflected in the code of ethics it had drafted. One of these principles was honesty. According to one report, the committee members stated that one criterion in determining whether a politician should be appointed to a senior government post is whether or not he inspires public confidence. It is not enough that the politician has been elected to make him eligible for a government position. The public must feel reassured that the office-holder will uphold the principles of democratic rule.