My Word: The strength of our convictions

It is better to feel that justice is perverse than that justice is being perverted.

The Supreme Court in Jerusalem hearing a case. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Supreme Court in Jerusalem hearing a case.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was an unlikely source of consolation.
A Saudi columnist wrote an opinion piece in Riyadh-based daily paper Al-Jazirah announcing, in his own peculiar way, his envy of Israel’s justice system.
“Ehud Olmert was prime minister of Israel and before that mayor of Jerusalem, but his history of service to his people did not help him when he was convicted of forgery and fraud, and he was sentenced to three years in prison. Before Olmert, [the Israelis] jailed the president of their country, [Moshe] Katsav, for sexual harassment of a clerk in his office, when he was convicted of rape,” wrote Dr. Jasser al-Harbash on July 19, as translated from Arabic by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute.
“When a citizen sees one of the most senior figures [in his country] brought to jail, he can wave his finger at the world and say: ‘We have justice here!’ But examine and compare our society to that of our neighbors. When I saw the former Jewish prime minister in his small cell... I looked away, not because I pitied him but because it reminded me of the difference between the justice in the society of the oppressor [the State of Israel] [and] the injustice in the societies of the victims [the Arabs] that surround it...,” Harbash wrote.
I also noted when Katsav was convicted that the only bright point was the thought that in no other country in the region would a three-judge panel comprised of a Christian Arab man and two Jewish women have the power to try and convict a president on any charge, let alone rape.
It is, however, small consolation.
That a president, prime minister, finance minister, interior minister, health minister, chief rabbi, some bankers and numerous mayors are not considered above the law is something to be proud of, but I would be prouder still were there not such a long list of former illustrious figures who needed to be prosecuted.
Israeli politics might be dirty but it is clearly better than what goes on in the surrounding regimes. And the local economy continues to thrive, despite the tycoons who rack up more debt than my numerically challenged mind can imagine. Israelis complain about corruption, but it’s nothing compared to what others have had to put up with – and that includes our near neighbors, the Palestinians. International tax dollars intended to help local aid projects are not being funneled into the homes of the Israeli leaders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife and his son are all under the shadow of investigation regarding possible bribes, but the alleged sources of funding were overly friendly billionaires, not international aid meant to provide housing and education.
As I have noted before, Israelis cringe at the thought of all the former ministers and MKs who are familiar with prisons from the wrong side of the bars, but their convictions for criminal – not political – offenses are the exact opposite of the sort of repression that our neighbors, near and far, know and fear.
I am not among those celebrating the increasing number of investigations hovering over the prime minister and his family. Corruption is a corrosive force; a conflict of interests can pull the country down. But justice needs to be based on more than a gut feeling. The police and judicial system must be extra careful to make sure they have sufficient, credible evidence before bringing cases such as these to court. When dirt is thrown in all directions, hoping some sticks, it doesn’t clean up corruption. It just leaves a nasty mess.
There is a feeling that some members of the press are jumping at the chance to prove Netanyahu guilty before he has even been charged – and Netanyahu has faced similar charges in the past and come out clean. It is perilous to turn the principle of “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” – pursuing justice – into something more akin to persecution than prosecution.
It is perhaps worthwhile considering adopting a system similar to the one in France where the president and prime minister have a special immunity from investigation and prosecution for all but the most serious charges during their terms of office. For that matter, limiting the Israeli prime minister to only two terms could also help prevent a leader becoming complacent. In France, the statute of limitations is frozen while the leaders are in office, but as soon as their terms end, so does the immunity – and they know it.
As Yediot Aharonot columnist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote last week: “Corruption shouldn’t bring down a prime minister. The voters should bring him down, and not a state’s witness.”
Yemini noted that Olmert was elected in 2006 “despite the wafts of corruption that surrounded him even then... It wasn’t the corruption that brought Olmert down. It was the Second Lebanon War that turned him into a lame duck.” Yemini quoted Prof. Yoram Shachar as pointing out that politicians who are caught on corruption charges are often already past the height of their powers. When they are successful, people are more likely to look the other way – as long as state security is not being compromised. That could be part of Netanyahu’s problem.
If a prime minister or leading public figure cannot work properly because of the number of time-consuming criminal investigations, that is obviously a problem, but the sincere attempts to get to the bottom of possible corruption charges serve a serious purpose: They act as a deterrent. They are a reminder that in Israel, no one is above the law.
Implicit in the Saudi opinion writer’s backhanded compliment is the acknowledgment that the existence of the state attorney, attorney-general and the High Court do not weaken Israel, they strengthen it.
“You shall have one manner of law,” it is written in the Bible (Leviticus 24:22). In Modern Hebrew, people like to talk of Mivhan Buzaglo (the Buzaglo Test): the principle that the country’s highest personages and most ordinary citizens – the hypothetical defendant Haim Buzaglo – should be judged by the same courtroom standards.
It is better to feel that justice is perverse than that justice is being perverted.
[email protected]