turkel - Eyal Warshavsky - February 6 2011
Retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel is the only member of the senior appointments committee not prone to political lobbying. Photo by Eyal Warshavsky
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A common narrative device in the thriller, whether in print or on screen, is the unexpected return of the hero after his removal from the scene, or to put it another way, a character who was shot in the first act suddenly resurfaces in the third. That surprise ending is what Ehud Barak and Yoav Galant attempted to effect this weekend, pinning their hopes on public remarks by Jacob Turkel that were interpreted as expressing his willingness to reapprove Galant's appointment as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, were it resubmitted to the senior appointments committee chaired by the retired Supreme Court justice.

After two conversations that we conducted with Turkel, however, it is clear that this was not his intention. Galant could be headed for an embarrassing fall if he tries, with Barak urging him on, to climb Jacob's ladder again in order to reach the closed door of the chief of staff's office.

Before he was appointed to the bench, at the age of 32, Turkel served as a soldier in the Givati Brigade and as an officer in the Artillery Corps, including as a forward observation officer during the 1956 Sinai campaign. He was transferred to the military courts unit. Like most Supreme Court justices, his army reserve duty was as a military judge, a service he has continued on a volunteer basis, now at the rank of colonel. He is no stranger to military issues.

Turkel likes and respects Gabi Ashkenazi. After the chief of staff's confidential testimony last August before the public committee investigating the Gaza-bound flotilla raid, Turkel, who chaired that panel as well, heaped praise on Ashkenazi. In granting his approval to Galant's succession of Ashkenazi in the position, Turkel was less than enthusiastic - "Galant can be appointed chief of staff." This was very different from the language he used four years ago, in approving Ashkenazi's appointment - "The committee supports ..." For Turkel, the difference is significant.

In light of the findings and rulings of the past five months, Turkel and his three committee colleagues would have rejected Galant. The misleading impression that the retired justice would have maintained his original position in a second round stemmed from Turkel's expression of sympathy for Galant "on the personal level," as he put it.

In their shared sense of being victims of the media, Turkel and Galant are on the same side. Both believe they were punished for doing good, that the homeland they came to serve turned its back on them.

Turkel's compassion for Galant is closer to a judge's reflections before pronouncing sentence on a defendant who has already been convicted than it is to the question of whether to convict or acquit. That compassion would not have been translated into a repeat of the misguided decision to approve the appointment before all the facts were known. As an accomplished judge, Turkel prides himself on his ability to change his opinion in the transition from a small panel to a larger one, or when faced with new evidence.

The problematic member of the Turkel committee on senior appointments is not Turkel himself, a thorough man who cross-checked the tiniest details in order to obtain an accurate picture of the flotilla raid. Were Turkel to resign in favor of another retired Supreme Court justice, the inherent impediment posed by the committee's composition would remain; that is, the fact that its three other members are tainted with the same defect they are supposed to detect and disqualify in those they vet - ties to political figures.

Only the government in power is represented on the panel, by means of two of the coalition parties, Likud (former justice and finance minister Moshe Nissim ) and the National Religious Party (former MK Gila Finkelstein ), and an official who is subordinate to the prime minister (the civil service commissioner ). This creates a dangerous opportunity to lobby and influence committee members.

Turkel did not succeed in foiling such attempts the first time around. Before the cabinet reconsiders the chief of staff appointment, it would do well to dismiss the Turkel committee's junior members in favor of individuals with a high public and professional stature, and no political background.