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Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman was upset. The war on crime, he told State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, needs a commander in chief with the time to urge on the police in their investigation of the murder of the Oshrenko family in Rishon Letzion, but the attorney general is over his head with more tasks than he can handle.

Lador, who was about to leave for Texas on a family vacation, listened and said nothing. Under the regulations that block political officials' access to files of cases under investigation, Lador did not share with Neeman information about the arrest of the suspect in the case, Damian Karlik, or about the actions that had led to his quick capture.

Neeman wants to split the post of attorney general in two to prevent the same person from serving as both head of the prosecution and the government's legal adviser. Neeman wants one person to say amen to the government and a second to be hamstrung. It's as if there were two communities, one needing an Ashkenazi chief rabbi and the other a Sephardi one. Two are better than one, the argument goes, because one is too strong.

The term of the current attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, expires at the end of January. Six years ago, his predecessor, Elyakim Rubinstein, left the post to reap the full pension benefits that were due to expire on January 1, a month before Mazuz was slated to take over. In the intervening month the post was held by the state prosecutor at the time, Edna Arbel.

If Mazuz insists on leaving as scheduled, while the search committee for a new attorney general tarries - preventing the government from appointing a successor - Neeman is not likely to recommend to the government that Lador become the acting attorney general. Arbel, in her month in office, filed an indictment against businessman David Appel in connection with his ties to the prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Mazuz threw out the indictment). Neeman already knows where Lador stands.

However, in the covert competition among Lador, Mazuz and Neeman over who will be the first to leave, willingly or unwillingly, the winner may well be Neeman. The police have recommended the indictment of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of bribery, money laundering, obstruction of justice and harassing a witness. If the attorney general files an indictment, Lieberman will have to resign immediately.

Three stages separate the head of the police investigations and intelligence division, Maj. Gen. Yoav Segalovich, and Mazuz's final decision. First, the summation of the case by the head of the economic affairs department in the State Prosecutor's Office, Avia Alef. Second, Lador's decision. Third, assuming that Lador recommends an indictment and Mazuz agrees, a hearing for Lieberman, if he wants one.

A candidate for indictment - unless his name is Ehud Olmert - has a month during which a hearing can be held. That means that Mazuz, to complete work on the Lieberman case before he leaves office, must decide by the middle of December and hold a hearing by the middle of January. By the middle of December, the file has to be transferred to Lador from Alef, who has been considering it for more than three months. It must then be passed on to Mazuz. That's a tight schedule, but it's possible.

If Lieberman is forced to resign, Neeman will be left without a political backbone. He is not a member of the Knesset and therefore plays no part as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's majority shrinks. The disintegration of the Labor Party is putting pressure on its leader, Ehud Barak, who wants to hold on to the defense portfolio to show that he is doing something and has a reason for clinging to Netanyahu - if not evacuating settler outposts in the West Bank then at least defending the rule of law.

Barak can once again don the costume of the determined knight, which served him in Olmert's "cash envelopes" affair. This time he will finally remember to de mand that the justice portfolio be given to Labor; for example, to a rebel MK who might return to Barak's fold: Ophir Pines-Paz. Or Barak will make do with a smaller move, one that will remove Neeman from the Justice Ministry but leave the portfolio in Likud's hands, with Gideon Sa'ar. (Sa'ar's education portfolio would go to Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon, a contender to succeed Netanyahu).

Characteristically, Netanyahu, instead of turning over a new leaf, chose to recycle the scribbled notebook of the previous decade, the one tainted by scandals concerning the appointment of an attorney general, among others. But with one big difference: Shas apparently objects to Neeman's moves because the last word in that right-wing party belongs not to Aryeh Deri, the friend of Lieberman and Neeman, but to the anti-Deri, Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

In one matter, Neeman is right. The attorney general is supposed to be the big man concerning law enforcement. Accordingly, he has to be more professional and authoritative than those below him. Functions of advice and even administrative decisions can be delegated to assistant attorney generals.

But this is not the case concerning investigation and prosecution, where the attorney general has to be a mega-prosecutor. Here the chief witness is Mazuz himself. In the first half of his tenure he was still influenced by his previous post as an assistant attorney general. Despite his denials, it's unlikely that today, with the expertise he has acquired in criminal cases, he would close the Greek island corruption case against Ariel Sharon.

Even though he does not wear a uniform, the attorney general is the head of the state's investigations. The chain of command of criminal investigations starts with him and descends via the state prosecutor to the head of the police investigations and intelligence unit. The attorney general is the commissioner and the state prosecutor is the deputy commissioner, or the head of operations in the high command of law enforcement.

This also applies to intelligence and investigative operations, which require authorizations and warrants. For the most part, it's the same with security investigations, in a manner that makes the attorney general and state prosecutor the superiors of the head of the Shin Bet security service.

Democracies tend to start life amid concerns about creating checks and balances, to prevent an accumulation of power that will lead to tyranny. This is true for the economy as well as for security and law enforcement. Needs and threats force changes: a central bank, a military under one command, the intertwined task forces of judicial agencies.

David Ben-Gurion's demand to subordinate the air force and navy to the General Staff and to eliminate the post of head of national headquarters (held by Israel Galili) as a slot between the General Staff and defense minister was no caprice. In the National Security Council, in Jerusalem as in Washington, the NSC head and national security adviser are the same person.

The creation of the national investigations unit Lahav - which has not yet received all the powers it needs - within the investigations and intelligence division is an attempt to concentrate efforts. A similar move can be seen in the combined activities of the police, tax and money-laundering authorities. This is why Lador sought the appointment of a state prosecutor for economic affairs.

Years ago, Neeman's former law partner Chaim Herzog was operating in line with Neeman's opinion when as Israeli president he pardoned the senior Shin Bet officials involved in the Bus 300 hijacking affair. Shin Bet deputy head Reuven Hazak and division heads Peleg Radai and Rafi Malka, who filed a complaint with the State Prosecutor's Office and attorney general about Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom, Yossi Ginossar and others, were denounced by the pardon lobbyists as would-be fomenters of a putsch to oust Shalom and replace him with Hazak. The subsequent police investigation corroborated the allegations by Hazak and his colleagues.

Amazingly, this same word putsch has cropped up in some reactions to the sharp letter sent by Lador against Neeman's plan to split the post of attorney general. But if Neeman is on the same side as the putsch, it's not hard to know on which side the truth is.