Hanegbi case shows need for nuanced approach

A lack of clarity regarding appointment procedures hurts honest politicians.

Hanegbi 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Hanegbi 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After four years of deliberations that included testimony by well over 100 witnesses, producing thousands of pages of transcripts, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday acquitted MK Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) of most of the charges against him. Political appointments made by Hanegbi during his stint as Likud’s environment minister between 2001 and 2003 were not deemed by the court to be criminal acts of fraud, breach of trust or electoral bribery.
However, Hanegbi was found guilty of perjury. The court, in an expanded three-man panel – rare, considering the charges – ruled that Hanegbi had lied when he denied being behind the publication of an ad aimed at garnering the support of Likud central committee members. In the ad, which appeared in a Likud mouthpiece ahead of the January 2003 elections, Hanegbi bragged about the large number of Likud central committee members he had appointed in the Environment Ministry. The implication, apparently, was that if central committee members voted for him as a candidate on the Likud’s Knesset list, Hanegbi would return the favor.
The ramifications of Tuesday’s ruling are still unclear. In September or October, the court is expected to sentence Hanegbi and will decide whether the perjury charge carries with it “moral turpitude.” If so, Hanegbi’s political career could be hurt.
The court’s decision raises some fundamental questions: Notably, should political appointments, even if they are made for electoral support, be considered a criminal offense? And crucially, why is it that there seem to be no clear directives and procedures governing these appointments? The High Court’s official position, as set down in Dekel vs. The Minister of Finance, is that political appointments are forbidden. But the Israeli political reality is radically different. Politicians routinely appoint political affiliates.
Numerous state comptroller’s reports complaining about the phenomenon have done nothing to change this.
One of the reasons Hanegbi was acquitted on counts related to political appointments is precisely that the practice is so widespread. Hanegbi’s predecessors in the Environment Ministry behaved in exactly the same way.
Nor are political appointments a uniquely Israeli phenomenon.
The American judiciary has recently taken steps to limit the scope of the “honest service law” to extreme cases, such as those involving bribery. In the Hanegbi case, meanwhile, an Israeli court was willing for the first time to consider the possibility that a political appointment could be a criminal offense.
ACCORDING TO Prof. Yossi Shain of Tel Aviv and Georgetown universities, who has authored a soon-to-be published book called The Language of Corruption in Israel’s Moral Culture, the Israeli judicial approach is counterproductive.
It creates the impression that Israeli politics suffers from rampant corruption. This undermines the public’s trust in politics and politicians without addressing the real problem.
Instead of a blanket prohibition against all political appointments, a more nuanced approach is in order, one that recognizes the realities of political life. As a Shas minister put it over a decade ago when confronted with charges of political appointments, “What do you expect me to do? Appoint a Likudnik?” If it can be determined that a given appointment undermines the democratic process by, for instance, putting in office an official without consideration of his or her substantive merits but only of his or her political utility, it should be blocked. But prohibiting all forms of political appointments as inherently wrong is not only impossible to enforce, it is also unnecessary.
More important is the need for clear directives that govern the way appointments are made. Prospective appointments should all be vetted through a tender process, a special appointment committee or some other method that provides a measure of oversight. Doing so would protect politicians from pressure exerted on them by their cronies.
A lack of clarity regarding appointment procedures hurts honest politicians, who will be either overly cautious or unfairly accused of wrongdoing. Dishonest politicians, meanwhile, will try to take advantage of the ambiguity.
Hanegbi – a veteran politician who may yet prove central to efforts to forge a unity coalition – perjured himself because he felt he had something to hide. But if political appointments made in accordance with clear directives and transparent processes had been considered completely legitimate, he would not have had to lie in the first place.