Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu did well when he bowed to public pressure and criticism from senior members of his own Likud Party and ensured that Daniel Friedmann would not stay on as justice minister in his government. But it seems doubtful that the substitute he found, attorney and professor Yaakov Neeman, actually represents a different approach.
Neeman, an expert in tax law and one of Israel's leading corporate lawyers, was justice minister in Netanyahu's first government, in 1996, but resigned about two months later due to a police investigation that resulted in him being indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the trial of former minister Aryeh Deri. In his testimony at his own trial, Neeman accused the prosecution of concocting false charges against him to remove him from the Justice Ministry. The court ultimately acquitted him, and he returned to Netanyahu's cabinet as finance minister. Ever since, his trial has served as ammunition for critics of the justice system, who describe it as a "frame-up" by "the rule of law gang" against a minister who was not to its liking.
Over the last few years, Neeman has supported Friedmann's proposed reforms of the legal system, and in public appearances he has justly criticized the unconscionable length of many legal proceedings as one of the system's key problems. His legal expertise and wealth of public experience (he has also served as director general of the Finance Ministry and chairman of a commission on conversions) are in no doubt. Moreover, he has in the past demonstrated openness to other opinions, and on the conversion commission he tried to bridge the conflicting positions and interests of the different Jewish movements.
Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the message sent by Neeman's repeat nomination as justice minister: Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, the man entrusted with appointing the new justice minister, prefer to fill the post with a like-minded candidate who is a fierce critic of the justice system, and feels that he has been deeply personally injured by some of its senior officials. Like Friedmann, this, too, is a confrontational appointment, which seems like an effort to strengthen political control over the justice system rather than an effort to improve its functioning and the service it offers the public in a spirit of understanding and cooperation among the different branches of government. This is particularly surprising because, as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu opposed Friedmann's initiatives.
The fact that someone suspected of serious crimes, such as Lieberman, is choosing the justice minister, who chairs both the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and the Judicial Appointments Committee, is despicable, as is Netanyahu's willingness to hand over responsibility for this appointment to the head of a party that conducted a racist campaign against Israel's Arab citizens.
But unlike the proposal to leave Friedmann on the job, to which Netanyahu was merely seen as having capitulated due to coalition pressures from Lieberman, the prime minister-designate cannot evade responsibility for Neeman's appointment. Neeman was and remains one of the people closest to Netanyahu, and one of his confidants. And who knows better than Netanyahu how deeply Neeman was hurt by the injustice his alleged "persecutors" caused him?
In choosing Neeman, Netanyahu has signaled his intent to resume the war against the "elites" that he waged in his previous, unsuccessful term. And that constitutes a problematic start to his second term as prime minister.
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