We all benefit from the rule of law

The Galant affair has revived feeling among many Israelis that legal authorities here are too light on the trigger in regard to their treatment of public figures. I disagree.

Galant 311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s office)
Galant 311
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s office)
The Galant affair has revived the sense that Israel suffers from an over-abundance of legal interference.
I do not share this critique.
Like many others, I am convinced that Maj-Gen. Yoav Galant is fit to lead the army. His rich experience, his courage, his skills as a commander and a leader are well known to me personally from the various security positions I held on both ministerial and parliamentary levels. I feel for him. And yet, the state institutions responsible for the rule of law must be safeguarded.
THIS PAST decade has seen a sorry saga of legal proceedings against public figures.
In 2000, Israel’s president resigned following an investigation over funds he received from a personal friend, a Jewish businessman. The attorney general decided not to indict him, but the president stepped down, five years before the end of his presidential term.
That same year, the interior minister went to jail, sentenced to a three-year term after being found guilty of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.
In 2001, a former defense minister was found guilty of indecent acts under aggravated circumstances, and resigned from the Knesset.
In 2004, an investigation was opened against the public security minister on suspicion of making political appointments during his previous tenure as environmental protection minister. The investigation led to a serious indictment and to the end of his service as a government minister for many years. (In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that the said minister is the writer of these lines.) That same year, after a lengthy investigation, the attorney general decided to close the file against the then prime minister in the “Greek Island” affair. The prime minister’s son, himself an MK, was indicted a year later and found guilty of falsifying corporate documents and perjury, and after accepting plea bargain, was imprisoned for seven months.
In 2006, the attorney general decided to investigate claims of rape and sexual harassment against the then president. The president resigned from office in June 2007, a month before the end of his term, and was prosecuted in 2009. In 2010, he was found guilty of two counts of rape, indecent acts by force, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice. His sentence has not yet been handed down.
Between 2004 and 2006, six additional MKs were convicted of criminal offenses: A minister without portfolio was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with his relationship with a worker at the Ministry of the Interior, and was sentenced to six months community service. A deputy minister was convicted of charges of election fraud, suborning witnesses, and obstruction of justice in the “City Tower” affair, and received an eight-month jail term – a sentence which was later commuted by the president to community service.
An MK who was charged with falsifying an academic paper was found guilty of fraud in a plea bargain and was fined and placed on probation. Two MKs who were convicted of breach of trust in the “Double Voting” affair were sentenced to community service – one for four months and the other for two months. Another MK who was convicted for, among other things, fraud under aggravated circumstances and falsifying corporate documents, was sentenced to three years in jail.
In 2007, the justice minister was investigated in the affair known as the “kiss in the Prime Minister’s Office.” The minister stepped down immediately, and was found guilty later that year of committing indecent acts without consent. The sentence was 120 hours of community service.
In 2008, the labor and social welfare minister was convicted of, among other things, accepting bribes and breach of trust. The Supreme Court sentenced him to four years imprisonment.
In 2009, the finance minister was convicted of, among other things, theft, fraud under aggravated circumstances and money laundering. He was sentenced to five years and five months imprisonment. A decision on his appeal over the sentence has yet to be reached.
Between 2007 and 2010, the then prime minister was the subject of six criminal investigations. In two of the affairs, the attorney general found that there was no basis for indictment; in three, the prime minister was indicted; a conclusion has yet to be reached on the sixth affair.
In 2007, a state commission of inquiry, headed by a former judge, determined that the police commissioner’s term should not be extended. A few hours later the commissioner announced his resignation. The public security minister announced that the former head of the prison services would be appointed in his stead.
That candidate was forced to forgo the position after a petition was filed with the Supreme Court, in which it was claimed he should not be appointed in light of statements regarding him set out by the dissenting judge in a criminal trial in which he had been exonerated 15 years earlier.
Over the past several months, there were three more incidents in which candidates vying for important public positions have had to withdraw their candidacy.
Last November, the attorney general opened an investigation against a high-ranking police officer, who was the leading contender for police commissioner, on suspicion of sexual harassment. In January, the prime minister’s candidate for the post of Civil Service Commissioner withdrew his candidacy after the attorney general announced that he would ask the prime minister to reevaluate his decision. Last week, the prime minister and the defense minister announced that, in light of a finding by the attorney general, they would ask the government to cancel its previous decision to appoint the OC of the Southern Command as the next IDF chief of general staff. And we haven’t yet mentioned the investigation against the foreign minister, which began years ago, and in which a decision by the attorney general is expected to be handed down this month.
THIS STAGGERING array of legal incidents has no parallel in any other country.
In every healthy democracy, incidents of public corruption are uncovered occasionally, and the appropriate way to deal with them is through the legal system.
But such a unique accumulation of investigations and indictments, of presidents, prime ministers, ministers and parliament members, in the last decade alone, is unheard of in any other Western society. And that is why so many people feel that the legal authorities in Israel are too light on the trigger in regard to the treatment of public figures.
But again, I do not share that feeling. I had the privilege to serve as a minister in charge of the lawenforcement authorities for many years, as both the justice minister and the public security minister. I met with leaders, commanders and members of units in all police districts, district attorneys, the department of police investigations, the attorney general’s departments, and the various courts. I witnessed up close the seriousness, professionalism and dedication that characterized their work. As with all organizational frameworks, there is room for improvement, and one can always legitimately criticize a decision made by a police investigator, senior prosecutor or judge. However, on the whole, these systems operate with a sense of mission and fulfill a vital, irreplaceable role in protecting Israeli society against dire threats – whether in the struggle against terrorist organizations and sophisticated organized crime rings, or to preserve the integrity of the governmental system.
True, at times, a sense of mission may lead to an obsessive crusade, which can harm the sense of justice.
And that is where the independence of the judicial system is put to the test. It has already proven time and again that when the police or prosecution displays excessive zeal in its quest to incriminate innocent defendants, the judges do not hesitate to acquit them.
It is inappropriate here to address investigations or trials which are pending. But when objectively examining legal proceedings in which final decisions have been reached, the well-argued, balanced and thoughtout nature of the verdicts handed down by the judges is impressive.
WHEN IT comes to my own case – in which there was an intensive police investigation, a trial that lasted four years, a verdict that acquitted me of most of the charges, and a single conviction for which I had to resign from the Knesset – I did not feel, even for a moment, that I was caught up in a hopeless, Kafkaesque system. I knew that I was in the dock not because someone was out to get me, but because of mistakes I had made in good faith. I believed that the court was open to hearing my version, which stated that there was no criminal flaw in my actions, even if there were mistakes, that in retrospect, I should have refrained from.
Even after the judges read out their verdict, and even though not all of my claims were fully accepted, I remained convinced that the court was committed solely to ensuring justice.
AT THE end of the day, the insistent meticulousness in enforcing the law equally on every citizen, be he a member of the public, an elected official, or a civil servant, improves all of our lives. It eradicates unacceptable phenomena from which we ought to be weaning ourselves. It forces leaders to be doubly cautious when dealing with public assets. It constitutes a warning sign which no one can ignore or deny.
If, in the next decade, we are spared more of the alltoo- familiar headlines about investigations and convictions of leaders, we will know that this past decade, full of legal proceedings, has had a positive effect on the quality of government. And if so, public confidence in the political system will be strengthened, while the worrisome erosion of public confidence in our law-enforcement institutions will end.
The writer is a former Kadima minister.