Signed, Sealed, Deposed: The Letter That Nearly Did in Yaakov Neeman

When a distraught businessman approached attorney Yaakov Neeman for advice following testimony given to police about Aryeh Deri, Neeman told him to write a letter qualifying the information. Five years later, that conversation nearly spelled the end of Neeman’s rise to Justice Minister.

It all started with a seemingly innocuous meeting with businessman Martin Brown at a Judaica exhibition in Jerusalem. By the end of the affair five years later, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, then an attorney, would be acquitted of obstructing justice, false swearing and perjury, despite the judges admitting that Neeman’s affidavit contained factual errors. These errors were made in good faith, they would rule in 1996, and “without the necessary criminal thought.

Neeman’s meeting with Brown at the Judaica exhibition at the Jerusalem Convention Center in 1991 was his first. Born in 1949, the son of a Hungarian tailor, Brown immigrated to Israel at the age of 7 and moved to London 28 years later. Today, Brown calls Neeman “rotten” and says he regrets ever meeting him.

Yaakov Neeman - Olivier Fitoussi - 05012012
Olivier Fitoussi

In May 1991, Brown met with Neeman in the latter's spacious office in Tel Aviv. The consequences of that meeting would haunt Neeman for years to come. Brown came to Neeman after having been interrogated for hours by the police fraud unit, which was conducting the country's most sensitive investigation at the time. The subject of the investigation was Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox political party Shas, whose meteoric political career had catapulted him to the powerful post of interior minister.

It was Brown's second interrogation in the case; on both occasions he provided information which seriously implicated Deri. Brown testified that when Deri was director general of the Interior Ministry, Brown has hosted Deri and his wife in London, underwriting the visit and bought Deri shoes, cigars and clothing at Harrods. Brown later received money from another Israeli, Moshe Weinberg, who was afterward the recipient of governmental benefits from Deri. "I warned those around Deri not to pin their future on him, because I foresee a bleak future for him," Brown said in his interrogation. "My impression was that Deri is a corrupt official, a megalomaniac who lost his sense of caution in the light of the expenses which people, including me, pay him, and which he did not pay back.”

Neeman would later say that Brown appeared agitated and flustered in the meeting. "It was a rough spectacle," Neeman stated in his court testimony. "He was trembling, overwrought, in a very grim state of mind. He said something terrible had happened to him, that he had testified to the police and that they had got him to say things that were untrue."

Neeman told the court that he advised Brown to go back to the police and tell the truth. When Brown declined, Neeman told the court, he advised Brown to send himself a letter to London in which he would qualify some of what he had told the police. Brown would thus possess irrefutable proof of the date of the qualifications.

Brown sent himself a letter and remained in contact with the police. In September 1992, more than a year after his incriminating testimony against Deri, Brown gave the head of the police investigative team his version of the meeting with Neeman. "The day after he gave his testimony to the police, attorney Yaakov Neeman invited him to his office and asked him, 'Why are you people suddenly helping the police?' This repeated itself in a number of meetings between them, including in London," Meir Gilboa, the head of the police investigative team, wrote in a memorandum. The police, however, decided not to question Neeman.

In February 1996, Neeman got a call from attorney Dan Avi-Yitzhak, who was representing Deri. He said he was about to leave for London with a team of prosecutors in order to depose Brown in connection with the criminal trial against Deri. Avi-Yitzhak told Neeman that he had a copy of Brown's letter of qualification and apprised him about the sensitive information Brown had given the police. Neeman, for his part, gave Avi-Yitzhak details of his conversations with Brown in connection with the Deri investigation.

In June 1996, Deri, Avi-Yitzhak and representatives of the State Prosecutor's Office traveled to London for Brown's deposition. In the hearing, Brown retracted his entire incriminating account against Deri. "I was under the influence of Prozac," Brown said, referring to the antidepressant. He added that on the day after he gave testimony to the police, he went to his lawyer, Neeman, and "cried" to him about the way the investigation was being handled.

The prosecutor, Jacques Chen, also presented Gilboa's memorandum, in which Brown alleged that Neeman tried to influence him not to testify against Deri. For years afterward, Neeman would insist that this sensitive document was resurrected four years after it was written for the sole purpose of wrecking his tenure appointment as justice minister.

Brown was declared a hostile witness. The judges in the Deri trial wrote that "Brown's version in the letter he wrote to himself is contradicted by unequivocal evidence." Moreover, they said, "The tape-recording [of the interrogation] shows that the conversation between Brown and his interrogators took place in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Brown spoke with his interrogators willingly and openly. He said what he had to say freely."

Nevertheless, the court decided not to rely on Brown's contradictory remarks. Even so, much of his incriminating testimony against Deri was confirmed from other sources.

The astonishing development involving Neeman’s part in the self-sent letter added new ammunition to a petition to the High Court of Justice which had already been submitted against Neeman's appointment: a prima facie suspicion of suborning the key witness in the Deri trial. Passions ran high. Neeman submitted his response to the High Court.

Then Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair threw a bombshell. He announced that he intended to conduct a quick police check in order to ascertain if an evidentiary basis existed to justify a police investigation against Neeman. "There are some in the State Prosecutor's Office who don't want a minister who wears a skullcap," Neeman, who is religious, growled. He alleged that Ben-Yair, whom he was about to replace, had more or less subjected him to a witch hunt.

A few weeks later, Ben-Yair announced that he had decided to have the police launch an investigation. In its course, the affidavit which Neeman had submitted to the High Court was found to contain factual errors. The state prosecution suspected that the mistakes were intended to blur the ties between Neeman and Deri, disguise the nature of their relationship and dispel the suspicion that Neeman tried to influence Brown's testimony. Some months later, Neeman was charged with committing perjury, giving false testimony and obstructing justice.

The original spark which had touched off the conflagration - the alleged suborning of Brown - was not included in the indictment. To his friends, Neeman, who resigned as justice minister as soon as the investigation started, looked like a broken man. "When he was indicted, he went to see two former justice ministers, and they simply spurned him. He was shattered, lost a lot of weight and developed a heart condition. He was like a carcass lying on the road," one of his friends relates.

"I pray to the Lord on high that I may be successful on my path, because I do not see this as only my personal trial. I am living with a profound feeling that the whole subject of placing people on trial is up for your judgment," Neeman told the panel of three judges. His aim was to transform the indictment against him into an indictment of the State Prosecutor's Office. Neeman would continue to harbor this feeling for years to come.

At the end of a lightning-fast trial, Neeman was acquitted. In regard to one of Neeman's mistakes, the court stated, "We cannot rule out the possibility that this is a flawed formulation, unworthy, but not a false declaration."

In his testimony, Neeman called Brown a fantasizer. Speaking to Haaretz from London recently, Brown, who speaks in third person, does not mince his words and has a sense of humor, fired back at the justice minister. Neeman, he said, "lacks a conscience."

Surprisingly, Brown now claims that Neeman did in fact try several times to dissuade him from cooperating with the authorities. He also denies ever telling Neeman that he lied to the police, as Neeman claims.

“"Under the skullcap resides someone who is my opinion rotten," Browns said of Neeman.

Brown says he told the police only the truth about Deri. He adds that after the interrogation he did in fact want something which would enable him later to qualify the incriminating account. Hence the letter to himself.

Brown says he decided not to tell the truth when he was deposed in London because of pressure on him from others. "A whole industry arose in order to neutralize the witness Brown. He was seen as a very dangerous witness," he said. "I didn't have the guts to speak the truth in the London deposition. I regret ever meeting that group."