A joke at the state's expense
Israeli democracy reached one of its critical moments last week. It is hard to get a sense of this in the media, which are treating the affair as if it were just another chapter in a series of caprices and affronts affecting the top echelon.
Israeli democracy reached one of its critical moments last week. It is hard to get a sense of this in the media, which are treating the affair as if it were just another chapter in a series of caprices and affronts affecting the top echelon. However, lying on the desk of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz is nothing less than the fate of the struggle against corruption in government and the question of whether the law will be exercised against senior officials who transgress.
Since the Aryeh Deri precedent in 1993, a minister is required to resign, or the prime minister is obligated to fire him if he refuses, the moment an indictment is issued against him. Only one minister is exempt from this requirement and can remain in his position even while sitting on the defendant' s bench in Jerusalem District Court, and even after three judges convict him and rule that his crimes entail moral turpitude. Unless the Knesset musters a majority to unseat him after his conviction, this minister can remain at his post until the appeal procedures are exhausted and a final ruling is handed down. This minister is the prime minister.
This is the key behind Ehud Olmert's moves in recent weeks: not Iran, not the budget, not any affair of state - only his survival in light of the transfer of his files from the state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, to Mazuz and from Mazuz to the police or High Court of Justice. Something is rotten in the kingdom of Olmert. Something? Everything.
Three serious cases - those concerning the sale of the controlling share of Bank Leumi, the political appointments at the Small Business Authority, and his contacts with his former partner, attorney Uri Messer - are hanging around the prime minister's neck. They involve different matters, but in order to cross-check information related to various witnesses and suspects, a special task force of the State Prosecutor's Office and police is necessary.
If Mazuz orders the opening of proceedings now, one can begin the countdown to the end of Olmert's premiership. Even a hollow party like Kadima - whose members the public has become accustomed to seeing as serial suspects - will find it difficult to justify Olmert staying in his position only because the law allows it. And Tzipi Livni, Avi Dichter and Meir Sheetrit will lose everything if they help Olmert cling to the altar.
Due to the (problematic) involvement of Mazuz's sister Yemima, who is the Finance Ministry's legal advisor, in the Bank Leumi case (the most serious of the three), the attorney general is only handling Olmert's other cases, whose investigation was initiated by the state comptroller.
When the seriousness of the suspicions and firmness of evidence became apparent, Lindenstrauss, Mazuz and their teams met to coordinate their efforts. Attorney Michael Kirshen from the Jerusalem district of the State Prosecutor's Office was assigned the Bank Leumi case and uncovered a suspicion of criminal activity; attorney Avia Alef is handing another case. The state comptroller is sovereign when it comes to conducting the inquiries, but only when he publicly grants himself authority to act as an investigator. This is what the previous state comptroller, Eliezer Goldberg, did when taking evidence from Omri Sharon. There is no need to launder the process with an additional police investigation. In the Bank Leumi case, prior to expanding the collection of testimony beyond the inner circle, the State Comptroller's Office asked for instructions about whether to continue its inquiry or hand the file over for criminal investigation so that their inquiry would not hamper the criminal investigation.
In Mazuz's absence, the inquiry (which could lead to a full investigation) is being supervised by State Prosecutor Eran Shendar. But Mazuz cannot run away from the case because the law exclusively authorizes the attorney general to order the opening of an investigation against the prime minister. If Mazuz decides not to order such an investigation, the decision will move to the High Court of Justice, and this time Mazuz can expect a tougher time than during the Greek Island case, when materials were not shown to the petitioners.
Olmert's success in escaping by the skin of his teeth from previous criminal cases has made him less cautious. In the Bank Leumi case, in 2005, he was no longer careful to only work via aides and confidantes. This time he personally issued directives to, berated and exerted pressure in the presence of witnesses who refused to collaborate with him - at least four young, credible and courageous officials in the Accountant General's Division of the Finance Ministry, headed by Accountant General Yaron Zelekha. It is rare that civil servants dare to stand up to a senior politician - then finance minister and today prime minister - and refuse to bend to his demands or to keep quiet, including during investigations.
The text of the discussions, the testimonies and additional evidence combine to point toward suspicion of fraud and breach of trust that have already passed the point of no return, and which mandate a criminal proceeding. Lindenstrauss is also blessed with a professional staff that was not deterred from collecting material and deciphering its meaning. At present the cooperation between comptroller, the accountant general and their people is now one of the last barriers holding back the wave of corruption that threatens to breach every floodgate. And Olmert is doing all he can to undermine it. The state comptroller and accountant general are being portrayed as a joke, as eccentrics. The joke is at the state's expense. Those who are standing guard, ruining the party and refusing to close their eyes to the sight of corruption and rot deserve to be mimicked, in the serious sense of the word.