The news of Aryeh Deri's plans to return to political life coincided with a Yedioth Ahronoth investigative report about how the prime minister was involved in rezoning commercial land in Lod in a manner that would allegedly benefit contractor David Appel. That coincidence cast a harsh light on how weak the law enforcement procedures against public officials have become. The confluence made evident just how lengthy a process it is from the start of an investigation through all the legal procedures until they are completed and how, as a result of those lengthy procedures, the public and moral impact of the process is diluted until there's no connection between the crime and its punishment.

Ever since the Likud's internal elections in 1999, suspicions regarding Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have been under investigation. So far, the inquiries have not led to a decision on either an indictment or closing the case. As a result of the original suspicions concerning Sharon's election campaign finances, other suspicions arose, now known as the Cyril Kern affair and the Greek island affair. Nor have either of those investigations reached any formal decision.

The reasons for the delays are known: a lack of manpower, the complexity of the investigation, which includes aspects that lead the investigators overseas, and the sensitivity of the cases considering the suspect's position. But behind those explanations there are other decisive elements: an a priori readiness to forgive perversions of the norm by public officials; a reluctance to prosecute these officials; and acceptance of the rules of the game they dictate to the investigation, mostly in the form of insisting on the right to remain silent and procrastinating for as long as possible.

The drawn-out investigations harm either the prime minister - or the public that placed the management of affairs of the state in his hands. Either Sharon has been unjustifiably tainted and therefore a determined and speedy investigation that leads to refutation of the suspicions is required, or the country is being damaged the longer he remains in his position of power. A country that claims it is run according to the rule of law cannot long tolerate a prime minister who is an unofficial suspect.

Ten years passed between the start of the investigation against Aryeh Deri to the completion of his appeals to the Supreme Court. During that time he did all he could to delay the investigation and the legal process. The Deri affair is not necessarily an example of the cliche about the wheels of justice turning slowly, but more of an example of a political culture that does not demand speedy and decisive accounting by public officials of their behavior, and tolerates the presence of such people in the arena center, even if a wake of wrongdoing trails behind them. If painful, immediate social and public sanctions were imposed on the prime minister, on other ministers and on MKs under serious suspicion, the investigative and legal procedures would be amazingly shortened.

Under the current system, the state allows public officials suspected of crimes to reach the pinnacle of government, and ignores the allegations made against them. By the time the accusations are finally turned into a court verdict, the connection between the crime and the punishment is forgotten. That happens because the public is anyway indifferent to criminal behavior by its elected officials and the lengthy legal process only intensifies that apathy. Thus Deri, who was convicted of a crime that is defined as shameful by the law, can announce, a year after getting out of jail, that he is going back to politics. Nobody remembers the two years he spent in prison, but only his presence in the national leadership during the previous 10 years.

The same is true of the Sharon cases, despite all the differences resulting from the mere fact that Sharon has yet to be summoned to answer police questioning. Since becoming prime minister, suspicions about his behavior that are not at all simple have piled up - but he continues to manage the affairs of state as if nothing has happened. That practice must be ended.

The police and prosecution should deal with investigations of public officials with a sense of determination and urgency; the right of silence must be stripped from elected officials when they are interrogated about issues that relate to their performance as public officials.