The cabinet on Sunday ordered the state comptroller to review the use of investigative wiretapping, in response to criticism over the handling of a sex offenses case involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's deputy, Minister Haim Ramon.
Media and commentators said the issue was an attempt by Olmert's allies to discredit the police and state prosecutors at a time when the prime minister is under criminal investigation over alleged corruption, which he denies.
After five hours of discussions, cabinet members stopped short of ordering a state inquiry similar to the one that examined shortcomings in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Ministers voted instead to have the state comptroller, the main government watchdog, investigate the use of eavesdropping in broad terms.
Olmert abstained in the vote relating to the case of Ramon, convicted last year of sexually assaulting a female soldier serving in the prime minister's office.
Evidence used to convict Ramon of forcibly kissing the woman was obtained through a court-sanctioned police wiretap of the telephone of Olmert's long-time aide, Shula Zaken.
Ramon's lawyers had complained that evidence from the wiretapping was withheld from them. Ramon resigned from the Cabinet for the trial, but was later reinstated. He was sentenced to a couple of weeks of community service.
Zaken is a key witness in the corruption investigation against the prime minister and a suspect in a separate corruption case involving Israel's Tax Authority.
State Prosecutor Moshe Lador said he was concerned a full-blown investigation, which Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann had demanded, into the wiretapping in Ramon's case "could harm public confidence in the police and prosecution service."
Friedman, a close Olmert ally, had an angry exchange at the cabinet session with Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who could be called upon to make the final decision on whether to charge the prime minister in the corruption case.
Olmert has said he would resign if indicted in the investigation that has focused on his receipt of $150,000 from U.S. businessman Morris Talansky. Olmert has called the money legitimate contributions to past election campaigns.
Friedman said prosecutors' behavior in the Ramon case had been "shocking." Mazuz fired back that the wiretapping does not deserve an investigation and stemmed from "negligence at the most", said a political source.
Heated debate ensues over Ramon wiretapping inquiry
The cabinet engaged in a heated discussion on Sunday about whether to establish an inquiry committee to investigate the police and state prosecution's conduct in the sexual assault investigation against Ramon.
The vice premier's attorneys had complained during his trial that police had kept recordings of wiretapped conversations hidden from them, and that this had harmed Ramon's case. They also questioned the basis for the order that allowed the tapping operation.
Olmert and Ramon had both said they will not participate in the discussion. At the start of the meeting, Mazuz said there was nothing to prevent Olmert from participating and voting on the initiative.
Friedmann did not need the government's approval to establish such a committee; he only needed the government to grant the panel investigative powers.
Friedmann said in the meeting that he wanted to discuss the attorney general's recent attacks against him in the media, and accused Mazuz of trying to undermine his authority.
"He cannot go to the press in a manner such as this, against the appointed minister," said Friedmann of Mazuz. "It is possible to criticize, but not like this."
Mazuz had submitted an official memorandum to the cabinet ministers, in which he bitterly protested Friedmann's initiative. Mazuz accused the minister of "misusing authority" and waging "a mission of revenge" against law enforcement officials.
The attorney general claims the motive for naming the panel is rooted in the court's conviction of Ramon, "a close friend and political ally of the prime minister," and that Friedmann's appointment to head the Justice Ministry was made against the backdrop of his fierce criticism of the state's decision to try Ramon, who was subsequently convicted.
Knesset legal adviser Nurit Elstein earlier on Sunday announced that she supported the establishment of an inquiry committee to look into the wiretappings in the Ramon case.
In her opinion, Elstein wrote that the subject touches on the public interest in and parliamentary supervision of wiretaps. She added that law enforcement should always work to uncover the truth, but that there need to be limits to its power.
Elstein said that the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee heard both sides of the Ramon affair. The committee felt the issue was not fully addressed, but that it needs to be in order to prevent future failures.
Labor Party: Let comptroller probe case
Meanwhile, the Labor Party on Sunday was to propose to make the state comptroller responsible for reviewing the police and prosecution's conduct in the case.
At the weekly cabinet meeting, ministers Raleb Majadele and Yacov Ben-Yizri said they would support the Labor initiative, while minister Yuli Tamir said she opposes it.
The proposal is meant as an alternative to the justice minister's controversial drive to set up a governmental commission of inquiry to evaluate the case.
Labor chief Ehud Barak attacked Friedmann's initiative last week, saying it "heavily reeks of a strong political interest to help certain ministers while severely compromising the Israeli legal system."
Last year, a justice ministry committee headed by retired judge Shalom Brenner recommended that the police's conduct in the matter be probed further after determining that "Ramon's case was handled negligently."
In his statement against Friedmann's initiative, Barak said that Labor would oppose Friedmann's suggestion. "The Labor Party backs the opinion of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and will oppose the establishment of the commission in the cabinet meeting on Sunday," said Barak.
The defense minister continued: "The Labor Party feels it is obligated to stand up for the rule of law, and to prevent a dangerous situation in which law-enforcement authorities are threatened by government ministers."
Responding to these statements, Ramon said that "Barak's attempt to pass himself off as a defender of the rule of law is ridiculous, and might even be aimed at currying favor with the State Prosecutor's Office and the police, who are now reviewing affairs that contain suspicions into the legality of his actions. He is the last person to preach."
Associates of Friedmann, who was appointed by Olmert from the ruling Kadima party, said the minister is not prepared to transfer the matter to the state comptroller. "The whole purpose of this proposal is to bury the issue," one close associate said. "What's needed is an independent and external body with authority and the ability to draw serious conclusions."
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