Sunday, July 06, 2008

Tensions High for Cabinet Vote on Police Probe

Hillel Fendel

The Cabinet is meeting to vote on a proposal that some consider "totally political" and others say is necessary to rescue Israel's legal system.

At issue: Allegations that the State Prosecution and Israel Police illegally wiretapped phones during its investigation of Minister Chaim Ramon's unsolicited kiss of a soldier. Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann has proposed that the Government establish a committee to investigate the charges, while some ministers vehemently oppose the idea. A compromise under consideration is for the State Comptroller to investigate the matter. The invasive-kiss incident occurred in the summer of 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. A month later, then-Justice Minister Ramon, of the Kadima party, was indicted for the act, and he promptly resigned from the government. In January 2007, he was convicted by the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court of indecent behavior. However, he was sentenced only to 120 hours of community service, and his crime was not deemed one entailing "moral turpitude" - meaning that he was not prevented from returning to a Cabinet position. In fact, he quickly returned not only to politics, but to the high position of Vice Prime Minister.

The investigation against Ramon was long accompanied by charges of unfair police practices, mainly illegal wiretapping. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz rejected the accusations at the time - and some say that had he taken them more seriously then, there would have been no call for a government investigation now.

Labor vs. Friedmann
The proposal has been accompanied by recriminations on all sides. Minister Friedmann, who generally favors curtailing the justice system's powers, especially those of the Supreme Court, has been accused of continuing his "vendetta" with this proposal. Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak has said that a "political stench" emanates from Friedmann's idea, which appears "designed to serve the interests of a given minister." Friedmann and Ramon are personal friends.

Labor has said that it would vote against the notion. Friedmann countered that Labor's representatives on the Knesset Law Committee voted in favor of a similar proposal, when the Committee recently voted unanimously to call for a government inquiry into the Ramon investigation.

Mazuz vs. Friedmann
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who sharply opposes an investigation, and Friedmann have exchanged biting barbs and accusations on the matter. Mazuz said Friedmann is "abusing his authority" and "appears to be on a capaign of vengeance against the justice system." Friedmann's aides said Mazuz was responding "with hysteria" and "apparently wishes to hide his own errors."

Pundits were unable to predict whether the government would approve the proposal or not. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a personal friend of Ramon's who cajoled him into returning to the government, and Ramon himself are not taking part in the vote. Labor's six ministers, as well as three Kadima ministers (Livni, Sheetrit, Dichter), said they would vote against, while the four Shas ministers are expected to vote in favor. Mofaz, Bar-On, Eitan and Majadle did not commit themselves before the session.

Public Opinions
Many public organizations and figures commented on the matter. The Ometz "good government" organization came out against an investigation, and said it would sue if Minister Friedmann took part in the vote. Others said that any minister currently under police investigation - Herzog, Barak, Simchon, and Avraham-Belila - must not take part in the vote. Some wondered aloud if such an investigation would have been requested had the "victim" not been a highly-connected government minister.

Former Judge Vardi Zeiler, who will apparently head the investigative committee if it is established, told the Cabinet that such an inquiry is necessary, and that the police investigators in the Ramon case had refused to transfer the evidence they found to Ramon's defense team.

Rabbi Cherlow: This Government Should be the Last One to Investigate Police
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Dean of the Petach Tikvah Hesder Yeshiva and a frequent commentator on public affairs, feels that the police, and not the government, must investigate the charges of illegal wiretapping. "If illegal wiretapping was carried out," he wrote, "the police must investigate, put those responsible on trial, and resolve clearly that the security and law enforcement arms must also not violate the law... But the government is the last one that must deal with such an issue - for it is headed by a man who has clearly behaved disgracefully, and has a Deputy Prime Minister who was convicted without doubt, and has a former Finance Minister who was indicted, and has some ministers who have chosen to remain silent when they were questioned by police, etc. The basic rule is, 'first decorate yourself, and then you can decorate others.' When the current government calls to have the police investigated, it... strengthens the public sense that everything is all one big manipulation.".

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