The hands of Jacob

Attorney, minister, and consigliere Yaakov Neeman, who died at 77, was a political era’s emblem.

Yaakov Neeman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yaakov Neeman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
THE PASSING of Yaakov Neeman, dean of Israel’s corporate lawyers and consigliere of prime ministers, presidents, justices and tycoons, could not have been timed more proverbially.
As the media buzzed with fresh graft allegations against Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister missed the star-studded funeral of his longtime confidant – the co-founder of Israel’s largest law firm who served Netanyahu as finance minister once and justice minister twice.
Obviously, Netanyahu wanted to attend, but the security arrangements his presence entails would have complicated the funeral services at Hechal Shlomo, the handsome, stone-domed building alongside Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue where police had to halt traffic for the gathering mourners ‒ a cross-section of Israel’s political, judiciary, financial and rabbinical elite.
The prime minister’s absence from his longtime counselor’s funeral was less unnatural, however, than Neeman’s sudden disappearance from Netanyahu’s advisory circle just when his counsel was needed most. Netanyahu surely would have liked to share with Neeman his latest legal tribulations, just as he and so many senior politicians have done over the decades in moments of legal contention.
Neeman, who died January 1 at the age of 77, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, never confirmed or denied reports concerning his legal aid to public figures. However, the range of personal situations he was reportedly called to untangle is remarkable, including, for instance, the distrust between Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon as the former cobbled together his first cabinet in 1996; Netanyahu’s deal in 2009 with Ehud Barak; former president Moshe Katsav’s emerging rape allegations in 2006; and the crisis between Netanyahu and his wife Sara in 1993 following his confession of an extra-marital affair.
Neeman, over the years, earned a reputation as a resourceful, balanced and discreet arbiter in charged situations such as these.
Then again, that colorful part of his career was but the anecdotal result of the legal practice that fueled a unique career that paralleled, and in some respects encapsulated, the era of the Likud’s political hegemony.
BORN in Tel Aviv shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Neeman graduated from a Modern Orthodox high school yeshiva.
After service in the IDF as a youth officer, he earned a law degree from the Hebrew University and a PhD from New York University.
The young jurist thus landed in the corporate sector in the heady days immediately following the Six Day War as a globalized, 28-year-old Israeli with a rare combination of local, American and Judaic legal education.
It took but four years for the prodigy to earn the reputation that persuaded one of Israel’s best-connected lawyers to partner with him.
The partner was Chaim Herzog, who was not only 20 years Neeman’s senior, but also a retired general and former head of Military Intelligence, as well as the son of former chief rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog.
The partnership was soon joined by Michael Fox, a British immigrant whose European ties were complemented by Herzog’s American connections, which harked back to the 1950s when he served as Israel’s military attaché in Washington. Neeman brought to the venture his quickly earned status as a brilliant taxation expert whose advice for big business was priceless.
It all added up to a formidable team.
Though Herzog left three years later to serve as ambassador to the UN, the law firm expanded rapidly and soon became Israel’s largest ‒ it still enjoys prominence to this day, with some 270 lawyers, including more than 100 partners, who will continue working under the name Herzog Fox Neeman, even now that all three are gone.
The firm’s corporate success benefitted from the economic timing of its establishment – the twilight years of Israel’s socialist era. By the following decade, as the state’s capitalist era dawned amid a windfall of public offerings, mergers, acquisitions and spinoffs, the firm prospered as a major player in a rapidly globalizing and steadily privatizing economy.
Clients soon included commercial behemoths like Bezeq, Israel Electric Corporation and British Gas, and almost any foreign-based billionaire who did business in Israel from industrialist Shaul Eisenberg and real-estate developers Nissim Gaon and David Azrieli to media barons Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell.
As the economy matured, the firm finessed deals involving the arrivals of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo in Israel as well as share and bond offerings of blue chips such as Cellcom, Bezeq and Bank Leumi.
While these successes turned Neeman and his senior partners into millionaires, reportedly charging a minimum $480 per hour, his bigger claims to fame would emerge at the other end of the tightrope he suspended, and repeatedly crossed, between the legal and public spheres.
HERZOG AND Neeman doubtfully thought of this when they first teamed up, but the professional diversity and geographic reach their combination created would pale next to the unique political sway it would produce.
Herzog was part and parcel of the Labor elite that founded Israel and, at the time, seemed destined to rule forever. The Right’s succession of Labor, and Neeman’s pivotal place within that alternative establishment, could be predicted by no one in 1972 when the Likud had yet to even be established.
Still, in 1977 Likud unseated Labor and, in 1979 as the economy spiraled out of control and Menachem Begin was compelled to replace his treasurer, Neeman was called in as director-general for the new finance minister, Yigael Hurwitz, a successful dairy products industrialist.
It was an inglorious stint that lasted hardly a year during which the Hurwitz-Neeman duo watched inflation soar while Begin refused to back the two as they tried to cut spending and offset deficits. Even so, from that public sortie to the eve of his death 38 years later, Neeman would be the political era’s Forest Gump ‒ repeatedly emerging in pivotal positions at critical moments that impacted history.
One such moment came in spring 1986 when the future of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) was in the legal balance following revelations that its agents had killed, on orders from above, two terrorists captured in 1984 outside a bus they hijacked and which was rescued by the IDF north of Ashkelon.
The so-called Bus 300 Affair, which involved an illegal killing and the attempted framing of a blameless IDF general, was sealed in an all night meeting in Neeman’s office where he brought together senior Shin Bet officers, their lawyers and thenattorney general Yosef Harish, who emerged from the marathon meeting with drafts of presidential pardon letters for the implicated secret agents.
Neeman’s solution, that pardons would be granted even before the defendants had been charged, was one of only a few such cases in Israeli history, but he rightly calculated that the president would think that the necessary overhaul for the Shin Bet had better happen without a trial’s limelight.
The pardon letters, therefore, reached the president within hours, and he indeed signed them as Neeman planned. The president, incidentally or not, was Chaim Herzog.
Although that affair was about one institution and one incident, Neeman was a member of multiple committees that probed deep-seated problems ranging from Israel’s tax regime and local government structure to explosive questions relating to matters of religion and state.
Indeed, it was in such capacities of exploration and vision that Neeman left his deepest imprint, rather than in his sporadic ministerial roles.
NEEMAN’S FIRST cabinet position came in spring 1996 following Netanyahu’s surprise defeat of Shimon Peres.
Young, inexperienced and suspicious of older and more veteran politicians, Netanyahu appointed Neeman justice minister because he was trustworthy and because he was not a lawmaker ‒ and, therefore, lacked a political powerbase. But it was an inglorious, two-month stint that was cut short by Neeman’s indictment for alleged suborning to perjury during Shas leader Arye Deri’s trial.
Neeman represented himself in his trial and quickly emerged from it fully cleared.
Opportunity to restore his public reputation beckoned the following year, when Netanyahu’s first finance minister, Dan Meridor, resigned over policy differences with the prime minister.
Neeman happily accepted the offer to return to the Finance Ministry, and Israel thus had, for the first time ever, a treasurer who was not a politician. It was also the last.
Though he understood the economy much better than most treasurers and was also in full accord with the prime minister, Neeman soon got tired of the daily quarrels with budget- hungry ministers. After a year and a half, he resigned and returned to his legal practice.
Neeman returned for a last ministerial stint last decade as justice minister for the second Netanyahu government. Though he now served a solid four years during which he introduced long overdue reforms, most notably multiplying the number of judges and shortening the average length of trials, these achievements paled in their significance next to the role he played as a bridge builder between Judaism’s antagonistic walks.
It happened in 1998 as demand for mass conversions rose sharply in the wake of the post-communist immigration from the former Soviet Union and pitted ultra-Orthodox against Reform, Conservative and modern- Orthodox rabbis. Assigned by Netanyahu to pave a path these antagonists could somehow share, Neeman did just that.
In his typical inventive thinking style, he separated approval of a convert’s actual conversion, which would remain the Chief Rabbinate’s province, from the learning process that precedes it, which would be opened to all denominations. In addition, he recommended the establishment of a non-denominational, state-run institute for conversion, as well as multiple, and, therefore, more accessible, conversion courts.
While far from idyllic, this roadmap shaped what actually happened on this sensitive front where pluralism was granted less than many hoped, but conversions proliferated faster than ultra-Orthodox politicians intended, while immigration persisted as the national interest required.
Neeman could perform such political acrobatics because he knew how to dialogue with, and win the trust of, people from diverse backgrounds ranging from Reform rabbis with whom he could discuss Maimonides and Spinoza to business tycoons with whom he could exchange notes about the Swiss ski resorts he frequented and ultra-Orthodox sages with whom he could discuss any page in the Talmud.
Coupled with his lawyerly skills and the demands of the era, Neeman’s ability to cross cultures landed him repeatedly where things were happening – whether publicly, as when he defended in the High Court of Justice Ariel Sharon’s dispatch of his son to talk with Yasser Arafat, or discreetly, as when a succession of defense ministers involved him in sensitive prisoner-release negotiations.
True to the bipartisan legacy of the firm he established with the future president Herzog, Neeman – at one point a member of the secretive Atomic Energy Committee – was frequently deployed by political adversaries such as Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert.
Then again, Neeman was not from the UN.
Ideologically, Neeman was firmly positioned on the Right ‒ he was a staunch supporter of the settlements and a strictly Orthodox Jew who openly craved a religiously inspired Jewish state.
Then again, his political promotion of right-wing causes was rare and ineffective.
Neeman failed to split the attorney-general’s office into two positions ‒ one the government’s legal adviser and the other its chief prosecutor ‒ a quest seen as intended to weaken the judiciary, which many on the Right see as excessively liberal. Similarly, a bill he promoted to let the Knesset re-legislate laws the High Court of Justice cancels as unconstitutional never became law.
Indeed, Neeman’s added value was not as a leader, whether of the observant community, corporate sector or Jewish state, but as the go-between who knew how to approach what sprawled beyond all these at a time when politics, economics and legalism became increasingly intertwined.
Now, as the Likud’s political hegemony turns 40 next spring, the religious attorney who repeatedly emerged at the heart of the countless legal, social, political and commercial dramas that checkered this era will likely be recalled as its emblem.