Analysis / A Hesitant Step Toward Harsher Treatment of Mayors Charged With Crimes

But for now, indicted mayors can continue to serve as long as the city council has not decided otherwise.

A special seven-justice panel of the High Court of Justice took a hesitant half step on Sunday in toughening its stance against mayors accused of crimes, and narrowing the gap between the treatment afforded mayors in such cases, compared with government ministers and deputy ministers. But it appears to be too modest a step. Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar, who was indicted for accepting bribes and other serious crimes, almost succeeded in preventing even this hesitant statement when he announced he would not seek reelection this fall. Nonetheless, the High Court did something, even if it was partial and vague and will require clarification in future cases.

The seven justices noted after the hearing that this was not a legal decision on the matter but “from a public standpoint there is great difficulty in the respondent [Zvi Bar] continuing to serve in the position of mayor of Ramat Gan, after having a serious indictment filed against him, in which it is claimed he committed crimes related to carrying out his position.” Since Bar announced he would not run, the judges decided the petition had “run its course” especially in light the of the public message from the court, the judges said.

Since the High Court’s decision concerning former ministers Aryeh Deri and Rafael Pinhasi of Shas, ministers and their deputies cannot continue serving after a decision has been made to file an indictment against them. This is the balance the court made between the presumption of innocence on one hand, and continuing in a position of public trust on the other. Until Sunday, the rules for mayors and ministers were different.

Bar’s decision to retreat from a legal fight in the High Court will allow him to complete his present term in peace. Moreover, he avoided getting a High Court decision on principle. Bar bought time for the other mayors accused of crimes that may allow at least some of them − each according to the severity of the charges − to run again in the upcoming elections. Today, a serving mayor accused of crimes can only be removed from his post by a city council decision. The High Court discussed the question of whether the Ramat Gan city council’s decision to leave Bar in place was reasonable in light of the serious indictment.

There is a proposed law being considered in the Knesset that would require, among other things, mayors to quit in such cases. This − and the fact that Bar agreed not to run again − may have led the court to defer a decision on the matter. So the old situation still holds: Indicted mayors can continue to serve as long as the city council has not decided otherwise. The attorney general thinks otherwise, but for now other city councils can wait until the next petition to the High Court.

Emil Salman
Emil Salman