Two separate legal processes in the area of public law that are finally nearing completion will rock Israel's political establishment in January, possibly even to the point of bringing down the government.
The first is State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss versus Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the matter of the Carmel forest fire of last December. The second is Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein versus Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose indictment for money laundering, fraud, breach of trust and harassing a witness, among other charges, is a near certainty.
Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai can be expected to invest great effort over the next few weeks - presumably to no effect - to tone down Lindenstrauss' "white paper," the hefty draft of his damning report on their role in the incident that claimed the lives of 44 Israelis.
Lieberman's defense team will have to pull a very big rabbit out of its hat during the hearings scheduled for December 18 and 25 in order to persuade Weinstein to reverse his intention to file charges. If indicted Lieberman would be forced to resign, throwing the survival of Netanyahu's government into doubt.
Lindenstrauss, who lives in Haifa and is a former president of the District Court located in the city (and in whose courtroom Weinstein, as an attorney, and some of the police officers who were killed in the fire appeared more than once ), has an emotional as well as intellectual attitude to the Carmel disaster. From his home overlooking the forest he watched as the woods dried out during last year's overlong summer, as did the pages of his critical assessment, in which he denounced the gaps in firefighting preparedness and warned of what they could bring. The responses of the victims' families, and in particular the responses of retired police commanders Ze'ev Even Chen and Haim Klein, the father and father-in-law, respectively, of Topaz Even-Chen Klein, brought tears to the eyes of even the most senior employees in the State Comptroller's Office.
The Carmel report will contain mainly instructive details, but it will point an accusatory finger at the highest ranks of the Israel Police, Prison Service, Fire and Rescue Services and the Jewish National Fund, including at many officials who have since resigned. The words may sting, but their practical effect will be negligible. But that will not be the case for Netanyahu and his cabinet. The comptroller will ascribe to them "special responsibility," greater and graver than the nonpersonal "ministerial responsibility" through which the Agranat Commission attempted to exonerate then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan from the punishment facing army and intelligence officers after the Yom Kippur War.
This special responsibility will pose a challenge to Israel's political culture: If authority exists, and there is no questioning the existence of dozens of unnecessary deaths, what is the responsibility and how should it be expressed? The finance minister, who took it upon himself to delay the Interior Ministry's budget despite a cabinet resolution and using arguments the comptroller rejected; the interior minister, who pleaded and wrote letters but did not use his political power to threaten to bring down the government unless the "catastrophe," in his words, were repaired; and above all, the prime minister - all of them will be called to reckoning.
Netanyahu has the assistance of the Prime Minister's Office legal counsel, Shlomit Barnea Farago. Steinitz and Yishai have hired lawyers privately (Ariel Bendor for the former and Jacob Borovsky and Shuli Eshbal for the latter). A committee headed by the Justice Ministry's director general will rewrite the protocol so that the treasury - the same treasury that refused to adequately equip the firefighters - will pay, out of the public purse, for the ministers' legal representation before the state comptroller.
The publication of the report will renew calls to appoint a state commission of inquiry - perhaps by Netanyahu, who the last time around preferred an investigation by the comptroller over a committee but will now want to buy time (and to hope that the next Supreme Court president, Justice Asher Dan Grunis, will appoint a panel that is comfortable for the government).
If Netanyahu refuses to resign, Weinstein will have to decide if and how to protect him from petitions to the High Court of Justice, and how to respond to Chen and Klein's demand for a criminal investigation against Netanyahu. Weinstein could fire Lieberman, who could fire Netanyahu. Lindenstrauss cannot fire Netanyahu. That is the responsibility of the public and of his voters.
But Netanyahu is not helpless: He could always bomb Iran.
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