Tzachi Hanegbi
Tzachi Hanegbi leaving court on July 13, 2010. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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After convicting MK Tzachi Hanegbi in a 2-1 verdict of perjury and swearing falsely in an affidavit, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court must now rule on another difficult issue, one with immediate consequences - whether Hanegbi's actions involved moral turpitude. A 2007 amendment to the Basic Law on the Knesset grants the trial court's decision immediate force, even if it can still be appealed: An MK must be suspended at once if the court rules that his crime involved turpitude.

A court's decision on turpitude is different from most of its other decisions, as this is a moral question, not a legal one. Formally, the turpitude finding is not part of the sentence. But in reality, it constitutes a heavy sentence for a public figure, as it restricts his freedom of occupation.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a finding of turpitude is warranted only if a crime involves "a moral blemish in light of society's prevailing moral values and ethical norms." Former justice Haim Cohen, one of Israel's legal giants, urged judges to be cautious about determining turpitude, saying they should do so only if the circumstances of the crime involved "a moral defect" that rendered the perpetrator "unworthy to enter the community of honest men, and certainly unworthy to bear public responsibility."

Turpitude is a consequence of the circumstances under which the crime was committed, not of the formal legal severity of the crime. Thus, former minister Haim Ramon was convicted of a sexual offense, forcible indecent assault, and the trial court defined his act as "unjust and immoral." Nevertheless, it ruled that given the circumstances of the incident, it did not entail turpitude - because the circumstances carry critical weight in this decision.

Later, in response to a petition by the Emunah women's organization, the High Court of Justice ruled in a split decision that since the trial court had determined that Ramon's crime did not involve turpitude, he should not be disqualified from serving as a senior minister, even though his appointment came hard on the heels of his conviction. Among the other considerations she detailed in her ruling, Justice Ayala Procaccia cited Ramon's contribution to Israeli public life as a reason for not disqualifying his appointment.

Hanegbi's contribution to public life, as emphasized by numerous public figures' appeals to the court on his behalf, is also a factor favoring a conclusion that his crime did not involve turpitude, but not the principal factor. The weightiest reasons - which the prosecution never really addressed in its request that the court hand down a finding of turpitude - stem from the details of the verdict that the court issued two months ago.

The majority judges, Aryeh Romanoff and Oded Shaham, found that Hanegbi lied to the chairman of the Central Elections Committee about who had authored a campaign advertisement praising him for his political appointments. They concluded that Hanegbi himself had played a key role in drafting the ad.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the findings of the dissenting judge, Yoel Tsur, who wanted to acquit Hanegbi on the grounds that the lie attributed to him by the majority judges was not on "a substantive matter," as the law requires for conviction. Tsur also concluded that the psychological basis for a conviction was lacking, since neither Hanegbi's familiarity with the details of the ad nor his awareness that his statement would mislead the CEC chairman (who had to decide whether to permit the ad's continued publication ) were ever proven.

For the purposes of a conviction, the majority's view is decisive. But when a well-reasoned minority opinion also exists, it deserves to be given significant weight in the turpitude issue, since a finding of turpitude is a very heavy blow to an elected official or civil servant.

The fact that Hanegbi was acquitted, again in a split decision, of the charges of election bribery and attempting to improperly influence voters, and that another charge - of breach of trust over his political appointments - was withdrawn, is also significant in determining turpitude. These charges were the heart of the indictment; an indictment for perjury alone would never have been filed. Perjury indictments are in fact very rare. Otherwise, they would clog the courts.

The letters in support of Hanegbi that were submitted to the court by the prime minister, the defense minister and the head of the Mossad - all of whom are under Hanegbi's supervision in his capacity as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee - indeed constituted an ethical lapse. But in any case, such letters carry little weight compared to other considerations.

Without making light of the crimes of which Hanegbi was convicted - crimes that must not be allowed to take over public life - it is still true that not every crime entails turpitude. And it would be a shame for the term to lose its significance because of overuse.