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Harpaz Affair Shows the Indecisiveness of Israel's Attorney General

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What character trait is crucial to an attorney general, more than anything else? Alongside integrity and love of justice, that quality would appear to be the ability to reach decisions. At any given moment, the attorney general needs to make decisions regarding a large number of cases. He has to push forward the country's cumbersome, clumsy system of justice. As fate would have it, however, the quality of decisiveness does not rank among Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein's most conspicuous character traits.

The continuing dawdling with Avigdor Lieberman's case file has loomed lately as a conspicuous example of the attorney general's mode of operation. Some suggest, as other evidence of Weinstein's hesitant bureaucratic method, the recent decision to shut down the case against Gilad Sharon, after 10 years of investigation (which began, of course, during the term of Weinstein's predecessor ). The attorney general's handling of the Harpaz document affair - relating to a forged document that surfaced when Defense Minister Ehud Barak was feuding with then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, centering around Barak's bid to have Yoav Galant replace the latter - is also likely to join the long list of examples.

Last March 22, a day after the document's forger, Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz, entirely changed his account of the affair and leveled new charges in writing, claiming that he had been deliberately directed in his actions by Ashkenazi - outgoing State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss sent a letter to Weinstein, recommending that a new criminal investigation of the affair be launched.

More than eight months have gone by since then, and the attorney general is still equivocating. A joint team of Justice Ministry officials and police officers continues to formulate its response to the state comptroller's recommendation, one which the comptroller reiterated in the opening section of his final report on the Harpaz affair, which was released on Sunday. For the time being, it does not appear that Weinstein favors a renewal of the investigation. The state prosecutor's office's position was made clear during a peculiar interview given by State Prosecutor Moshe Lador with Channel 1 political reporter Ayala Hasson, in autumn 2011: Lador claimed that this was an ethical matter, not a criminal one.

Weinstein does not appear to be a man who wants to fight. This holds particularly true when it applies to a potential antagonist who happens to be a former IDF chief of staff, a figure who is quite popular with the public and enjoys solid media backing. Nor do the police relish the idea of a reopened investigation. In August 2010, when the document affair first erupted, the police closed the case file within two weeks, and successfully identified Harpaz as the forger. The police handling of this affair was sharply focused, and yielded quick results.

It's not just that a renewed investigation is liable to bring up a long list of issues that the police would rather not get into: Such an inquiry would also expose the rather flexible methods deployed in the original investigation - including various "celebrity discounts" that investigators supplied, on their own initiative, to some of the witnesses.

The problem faced by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who keenly wants to see the investigation reopened, is that he has reached this final showdown without any political ammunition at his disposal. During previous rounds, Barak managed to impose forcibly far-reaching measures, such as the extraordinary extension of the previous state comptroller's authority, so that he could work on the Harpaz document report.

Today, Barak finds it difficult to prod the attorney general, since he's out of the political loop for now. One body that could help him is the High Court of Justice. The Movement for Quality Government in Israel has turned to Weinstein and IDF Military Advocate General Danny Efroni, demanding that the investigation be renewed. A High Court petition could be the movement's next step.

Ashkenazi's tactic in this battle has changed. The former chief of staff was content to issue a short statement in which he welcomed the effective acquittal conferred to him by the state comptroller regarding various accusations (that he was planning a putsch, that he had shady business connections with Harpaz ), and also admitted in passing that he displayed errors of judgment. As far as Ashkenazi is concerned, it's best to keep a low profile and hope Weinstein will remain true to form and bring the affair to a conclusion.

The public has a short memory. In any event, the mandatory cooling-off period continues to delay Ashkenazi's entry into the political arena, and prevents him from vying in the upcoming election. Until he reaches a decision as to whether he’ll jump into the political waters, the Harpaz affair will be a forgotten echo, nothing more than a small tremor in the wing.

It’s interesting that retired major generals were nowhere to be found in the coverage lavished by the media on the state comptroller’s report on the Harpaz affair, just after its release. Usually such a security affair triggers an explosion of talking heads in TV studios, featuring former generals who are happy to grab a microphone even to discuss issues about which they may have little knowledge. This time, they have kept quiet. Barak drags behind him an endless procession of persons who feel they have been hurt by him and loathe him, but in this case, none of them and not one of the large group of veterans of the Golani battalion have stood up to defend Ashkenazi’s position in the media.

Even though the spinmeisters have tried hard to foment a fog of confusion, the picture drawn this time by the comptroller’s report seems pretty clear: The findings constitute a victory for Barak, despite the fact that they included some harsh words concerning his conduct (the defense minister self-servingly dismisses the import of such criticism, characterizing it as mere expressions of requisite “protocol and manners”).

The state comptroller’s office encountered an unfamiliar phenomenon this week: A number of persons, including army officers, asked it for copies of the Harpaz report. Similarly, the number of hits on the comptroller’s website, from people who wanted to download a digital version of it, was surprisingly high.

Should the attorney general decide in the end not to renew the investigation, it would likely have an impact on steps taken by the military advocate general against Col. Erez Weiner, the former assistant to the IDF chief of staff and the report’s main target of criticism. A military investigation focused solely on Weiner would not be conclusive. It is more likely that the advocate general would recommend that IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz help bring an end to Weiner’s military career, in lieu of a criminal trial.

It also remains to be seen what will happen to Harpaz himself. The police submitted a recommendation to the state prosecutor to indict him as early as August 2010. A hearing process involving his attorneys started more than a year ago. Given this pace, the person who confessed to forging the document can issue counter-allegations about the delay being tantamount to the prosecution’s abuse, and demand that the investigation against him be brought to a halt.

The media coverage gave short shrift to another important aspect of the affair, the brunt of which is wrapped in the heavy cloak of the military censor: activities undertaken in the special operations section of the IDF’s Intelligence Branch. This week, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin stridently referred to this topic, when he characterized the network of relations between Harpaz and various top officers in IDF intelligence as a “mafia,” and called for a wholesale sweep of the stables.

Meanwhile, Gantz recently appointed two committees, one headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yom-Tov Samia, the other by Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak, to reach conclusions concerning the affair. But it’s already too late.

In November 2010, immediately after he launched his inquiry, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss sent a letter to the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff, declaring that a comprehensive, thorough examination was in order, and warning that activity of the Intelligence Branch’s operations division might need to be suspended temporarily, due to the damage that had been exposed.

Alongside disclosure of the close relations maintained by senior officers with Harpaz, the comptroller’s report revealed the fact that questions concerning his security classification had not been handled appropriately, nor had the possibility of a conflict of interest in Harpaz’s activity been examined. That Harpaz’s case constitutes a lone instance among former officers from the operations division is doubtful.

Tired and unfocused

Arik Harmoni is a Defense Ministry employee. A pleasant fellow, he has had for many years the job of accompanying and photographing defense ministers during their travels. A seemingly undistinctive photo taken by Harmoni at some point in September 2009 receives almost a page and a half of attention in the state comptroller report. This is the well-known shot in which Ashkenazi, standing alongside Barak, appears tired and unfocused; the release of the photo at the time persuaded the chief of staff’s office that the defense minister and his associates were waging a campaign against Ashkenazi.

As Avi Shilon aptly reflected in this paper on Wednesday, it is difficult today to discern what’s wrong with the picture, which was published on an inside page of the Maariv daily; it’s hard to grasp why the photograph stirred such a burst of emotion.

This story seems marginal, but it has one significant point. Media coverage of the protracted Harpaz affair (two-and-a-half years have passed since the document was released, and the clock is still ticking) necessarily involves countless discussions with the main players in the two camps, and with their talented assistants, media consultants and attorneys. These last three categories of persons are also well rewarded when they draw swords capably on behalf of their clients. Frequently, a journalist will discover that his interlocutor is better versed in details of testimony and documentary evidence than he is, and must be wary of making mistakes. However, it sometimes happens that ruses and efforts at bluffing almost unravel of their own volition.

With regard to the photograph, the state comptroller pricked the balloon that had been inflated by Ashkenazi’s office: The comptroller noticed that the same picture had been published on the IDF Spokesman’s website.

One claim raised by Ashkenazi’s camp, in its effort to persuade the state comptroller that a deliberate ambush was planned against the then-chief of staff, involves the novelty of a photographer accompanying the minister. “One day I noticed something new,” stated Brig. Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu, who at the time was army spokesman, “the defense minister turned up at a training drill with his photographer. That had never occurred before.”

Fairy tales

The problem is that this claim just isn’t true. I compared memories with colleagues and former assistants to government ministers. Harmoni has accompanied defense ministers to training drills for many years. He’s always done so. This practice wasn’t born one morning in September 2009, with an intent of harming Ashkenazi. But when the chief of staff’s office starts to believe its own fairy tales, and its faith derives from outright animosity toward the defense minister’s office a “holy riot,” as the state comptroller phrased it, is what emerges.

This tale of the photo might be a trivial matter, but why is the comptroller’s report important? Because after the election the report will help, at long last, to bring some clarity to the messy process involved in the most recent appointment of the chief of staff, because the phrase “Harpaz document” will be embedded in the consciousness of each chief of staff and his deputies for the next two decades.

The moment any of them entertains the thought of carrying out some machination against the government official overseeing them, the words “Harpaz document” will always be there.

And there is, to my mind, another important point: Starting with high-ranking officers and percolating down to lower-ranking ones, the army has always promoted that message of “act on the basis of the example you see in me.” During the past year, I’ve had the opportunity of following an infantry platoon during its training regime, from basic training to its first field assignments.

Throughout this whole process, I’ve discerned in the platoon a strong sense of commitment to the army, and belief in the IDF’s core values. This holds true with respect to the platoon commander and also to lower-ranking officers, who mostly displayed a surprising measure of emotional intelligence, taking into account their ages, and also their impressive understanding of the world in which they operate.

It’s easy, of course, to pay homage to the young soldiers, and bash the generals. Clearly, politics at the crowded peak of any organizational pyramid will always be serpentine and dirty. Yet the Harpaz affair bears witness to absolute confusion.

A close reading of the comptroller’s report uncovers a general picture of lies, machinations and lack of credibility.

The whole thing might be viewed as another reality show: Gabi is more popular than Ehud, and so Ehud obtained his payback via the offices of the state comptroller. Next week comes the episode where a contestant is ousted. There’s no reason to think that IDF platoon and company commanders will take the trouble of reading the 294 pages of the Harpaz report. However, in their capacity as persons liable to be called at any minute to the front lines, they are likely to expect a minimal degree of integrity among the top ranks of officers who send them into battle.

Ashkenazi, left, and Barak in happier days. Credit: Nir Kafri

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