End of the line for Bus 300
The Bus 300 affair - which involved the killing of two captured and bound terrorists who tried to hijack the No. 300 bus on its way from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon in April 1984 - came to light thanks to a photograph by Alex Levac that was published in the now-defunct daily Hadashot. It culminated in the president granting pardons to those suspected of obstructing the subsequent investigation by giving false testimony. Yet it lived on in the national consciousness.
Now, more than 25 years later, it has been revived by Ehud Yatom's quest to become chairman of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's plenum council. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan wants to give Yatom the job, in light of his public activism in various fields, including protecting the environment.
However, the Justice Ministry reportedly opposes the appointment, for fear that it would be voided by the High Court of Justice should anyone petition the court against it on the grounds that Yatom, who was a senior Shin Bet security service official in 1984, has repeatedly admitted to being the one who killed the two terrorists on orders from the head of the service - in a statement to the police, in his pardon application and in a newspaper interview.
This affair led the High Court to lay down several new legal principles. In 1986, it confirmed that the president is authorized to preemptively pardon someone before he is even indicted, much less convicted. It therefore upheld the then-president's decision to pardon 11 senior Shin Bet officials, including Yatom, in the Bus 300 case.
The authority to issue preemptive pardons was upheld by then-justices Meir Shamgar and Miriam Ben-Porat, with Aharon Barak dissenting. In her fascinating new book "Through the Robe," Ben-Porat describes how she proposed to her colleagues that they also examine the reasonability of granting pardons in this particular case, but they insisted that the court has no authority to examine the reasonability of the president's decisions.
Then, in 1993, the court overturned the cabinet's decision to appoint Yossi Ginossar as director general of the Housing Ministry, because Ginossar, who was also a senior Shin Bet official in 1984, had confessed in his pardon application to committing perjury and obstructing an internal Shin Bet investigation of the affair. In a ruling authored by Barak, the court said that a senior office-holder such as a ministry director general must radiate "honesty and integrity" - which a man who has confessed to crimes of this nature cannot do, even if he was later pardoned by the president.
In 1998, Knesset speaker Dan Tichon sought to appoint Yatom as the Knesset's chief security officer. I wrote in Haaretz at the time that this appointment was unreasonable, and would dishonor the Knesset's ethics code, because the occupant of this senior office - who is equivalent to a major general in the police - is supposed to serve as an example to his subordinates. In the end, the appointment fell through and I was harshly criticized by Yatom's many friends, who suspected that I had helped to achieve that outcome.
Yatom did serve as city manager of Hadera, but still sought to earn a public amnesty by being appointed to a senior security post. And in 2001, 17 years after the affair first broke, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon indeed appointed him to head the government's Counter-Terrorism Bureau. But the High Court overruled the appointment later that year, due to the position's "direct connection" with the field of counterterrorism - the very field in which Yatom tripped up in 1984. Then-justice Eliahu Mazza also stressed the seniority of the position, whose occupant must direct and instruct others, and the moral authority that its occupant must consequently have. However, the court did not rule out Yatom's appointment to other public positions, or, since the law does not forbid it, his election to the Knesset - something that later took place.
The current appointment is to a post that is not especially high-level, and has nothing to do with protecting the state - only with protecting the environment. Moreover, there is no reason to persecute Yatom for eternity. The Justice Ministry ought to make it clear without delay that there is no barrier to his appointment for any reason related to an incident from his past. And it seems likely that the court would also so rule, should a petition be filed against the appointment. After a quarter of a century, the time has come for the Bus 300 affair to finally reach the end of the line.