A Glimpse at the Life of Israel's Controversial Justice Minister

Prime ministers and influential figures have never been far from justice minister Yaakov Neeman's side, but controversy has been even closer.

Upon his return to the Justice Ministry in March 2009, Yaakov Neeman wanted his staff to study a page of Gemara (rabbinical analysis and commentary on the Mishnah ) every week. He had introduced the practice in his flourishing law firm, but it never got off the ground in the Justice Ministry. Neeman is rigorous in his religious observance. During the Ten Days of Penitence he immerses himself in Jewish texts. He frequently visits the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and prays there on the New Moon. In Hebron he is usually greeted by a few right-wing extremists who hurl crude curses at him. "They don't know the scale of his contribution to the Jewish community in Hebron," a Neeman confidant says.

Every Thursday evening, he attends a lesson given by Rabbi Asher Weiss in Jerusalem. Two years ago, Neeman told a conference on Jewish law that halakha (Jewish religious law ) should be binding here. "We must return former glories and make the laws of the Torah binding in Israel. This is truly the right way, to introduce Torah law step by step," Neeman said, to thunderous applause from rabbis and religious-court judges. He later claimed his words had been misconstrued and since then has been careful to prepare written remarks in advance and avoid potentially harmful off-the-cuff utterances. His self-image is of a conciliator, a mediator and an arbitrator.

Michal Fattal

Yaakov Neeman was born in 1939 to a religious-Zionist family in Tel Aviv. After graduating from the prestigious Midrashiat Noam high-school yeshiva, he did military service in the Golani infantry brigade. After being wounded in a squad commanders' course, he transferred to the Gadna (Youth Battalions ) and reached officer rank. He is married to Hadassah and is the father of six children - five daughters and a son - most of whom are practitioners of the free professions.

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While studying law, Neeman took his first steps in what would become a concurrent occupation: wielding influence in the corridors of power. At the time he was the secretary of the National Religious Party's faction in the Knesset. After completing his law studies, he clerked at District Court for Judge Miriam Ben-Porat (later a Supreme Court Justice ). He obtained a master's degree cum laude from New York University, where he also obtained a doctoral degree (with a dissertation on tax law ).

In 1972, at the age of 33, he founded a law firm: Herzog, Fox & Neeman. His partners were future Israeli president Chaim Herzog and Michael Fox. The firm, which specializes in commercial law, went on to become one of the biggest in Israel. Many tycoons are numbered among its clients, including Robert Maxwell, Daniel Abrahams, the arms dealers Shoul Eisenberg and Marcus Katz, Charles Bronfman and Jonathan Kolber. His friends note that in addition to representing the well-heeled, he has also done pro bono work for those less well off. They point especially to his extremely sensitive approach to the families of fallen and abducted soldiers.

From an early age Neeman forged relations with the political decision makers, which would stand him in good stead. In 1979, Finance Minister Yigael Hurwitz appointed him the ministry's director general. "Yaakov Neeman will become one of Hurwitz's biggest mistakes," Nahum Barnea wrote. "He is a lawyer who, as far as I understand, made his fortune mainly thanks to two talents: a talent for advising clients how to evade the tax authorities legally, and a talent for arranging things for clients in the political establishment."

In 1981, Neeman left the treasury and returned to his law office. Two years later, the banking industry stock shares crisis erupted, in the wake of which the country's four largest banks were nationalized. The 1986 report by the Bejsky Committee of Inquiry, which investigated the chain of events, linked some of the finance minister's problems to the behavior of his director general, Yaakov Neeman. However, as Neeman had left two years before, no further responsibility was placed on him.

Two months after the publication of the Bejsky Committee report, Neeman played a key role in another episode which rocked the country: the "No.300 Bus affair." It was Neeman who, together with fellow attorney Ram Caspi, approached Neeman's former law firm partner, Chaim Herzog - then the sixth president of Israel. They asked Herzog to pardon the ranking Shin Bet security service officials, who had lied about the circumstances of the deaths of two young Bedouin in 1984. They had been taken alive after hijacking No. 300 bus in 1984 but then summarily executed by Shin Bet agents. Neeman drew up a legal opinion for the political-security cabinet which validated the pardons and buried the scandalous affair, which nevertheless resonates to this day.

Neeman has had some kind of connection with every prime minister in the past 20 years. He was friends with Yitzhak Rabin, in recent years serving as chairman of the board of governors of the Rabin Center. He also maintained good relations with Rabin's bitter rival, Shimon Peres; his office represented the president's "baby," the Peres Peace Center. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak wanted to appoint Neeman governor of the Bank of Israel, but the move was blocked by Barak's finance minister, Avraham Shohat.

After Ariel Sharon succeeded Barak as prime minister in 2001, Neeman defended Sharon's son, Omri (at the time a private citizen ), in a court petition which sought to prevent him from mediating between his father and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Neeman was also on good terms with Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, serving as a key witness in Olmert's trial on a charge of creating fictitious tax invoices when he was treasurer of Likud (Olmert was acquitted ). Neeman also submitted a legal opinion in Olmert's present trial in Jerusalem, which is intended to assist the former prime minister. In 1993, when Olmert was running for mayor of Jerusalem, Neeman allocated rooms in his law offices for the campaign staff.

Alliance of the persecuted

In December 1995, Benjamin Netanyahu met with Neeman privately. Netanyahu was then running against Shimon Peres in the Knesset elections held after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the polls predicted that Likud would lose. But Netanyahu had the air of a winner. "Yaakov," he said, "I am going to appoint a government of professionals and you are going to be part of my team."

Following his victory, Netanyahu invited Neeman to a meeting at the Tel Aviv Hilton. Sitting next to the prime minister-elect was a massive, bearded blue-eyed man. It was Neeman's first meeting with the future director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Avigdor Lieberman. The meeting would lead to a close friendship and a kind of alliance of the persecuted.

The ties between the two became closer when Neeman and Lieberman jointly conducted the coalition negotiations for Likud. Neeman was appointed minister of justice in the new government. But two months later, he was forced to resign in the wake of a police investigation against him, which led to an indictment.

In December 1996, Neeman was charged with obstructing justice, false swearing and perjury. The charges were in connection with a 1991 police fraud squad investigation into Aryeh Deri, then interior minister and the leader of Shas, and a deposition given by the businessman Martin Brown. After a lightning trial, Neeman was acquited. The judges noted that an affidavit of his contained factual errors but that, in their view, these had been made "in good faith" and "without the necessary criminal thought." For the full story on the indictment, see Haaretz.com.

After the acquittal

Neeman emerged from the trial with a clear feeling of being hunted and victimized. The experience was the formative event in fashioning his loathing for elements in the State Prosecutor's Office and the Israel Police. When Avigdor Kahalani, a former public security minister, was acquitted on a charge of having leaked classified information to a businessman who was under investigation - and being appointed a director in one of the businessman's companies in return - Neeman crossed the road from his office to the courthouse in Tel Aviv, celebrated with Kahalani and invited him and his supporters to his office for a toast. Neeman later offered advice and a comforting shoulder to former defense and transportation minister Yitzhak Mordechai when he was under investigation for sexual assault. (Mordechai was convicted. )

Neeman was out to settle accounts with the state prosecution. "You were one of the conspirators against me," he shouted at attorney Yehoshua Resnick, who was questioning him on behalf of the prosecution in the Deri trial in November 1997. (Resnick was actually the only top-ranking prosecutor who was against indicting Neeman. ) "I learned how someone can be framed," Neeman continued to lament about the Deri trial. "The prosecution is not always guided by the light of the truth."

But there are some who continue to believe that Neeman's indictment was perfectly justified. "The state prosecution never framed anyone, including that case," says the prosecutor in the Neeman case, Ruth David, a former Tel Aviv District Prosecutor. "The decision to go to trial was not easy but was merited. A good deal of thought preceded the indictment, with the entire senior echelon of the office taking part. The weight of the evidence in the case was such that we had no choice but to go to trial and let the court decide whether there was a reasonable basis for his conviction."

After the acquittal, Lieberman and former defense minister Mordechai helped persuade Neeman to return to the government as finance minister. Neeman held that post for more than a year before resigning, going on a skiing vacation and then, two weeks later, representing the magnate Erwin Eisenberg in regard to the sale of Israel Chemicals to the Ofer family. Neeman was severely criticized in the media for obtaining a tax exemption for Eisenberg from the same unit where he had been boss just a short time before.

Neeman continued to stay in touch with Deri and even visited him in prison after the latter's 2000 conviction for taking bribes. He also continued to maintain very good relations with Avigdor Lieberman.

In 2004, Lieberman left the Sharon government, in which he had been transportation minister, and returned to private business. His main occupation was as a salaried employee in a company called M.L.1 - International Trading Company, Ltd., which his daughter Michal, who was then 23, founded. Documents obtained by Haaretz show that in the summer of 2004 Michal Chaya Lieberman signed - in the presence of her father's personal legal adviser, attorney Sarina Ben-David - both an application to establish the company and its incorporation papers. The State Prosecutor's Office maintains that Michal Lieberman was a cover for the person who held the real controlling interest in the company: her dad, the present foreign minister.

Lieberman holds Neeman in high regard and trusts him. That was why he agreed to his appointment as justice minister. But in private conversations Lieberman tells people who ask him about Neeman: "I wanted [former justice minister Prof. Daniel] Friedmann to be appointed minister of justice. Rubi [Reuven] Rivlin and Benny Begin came to me and for an hour cajoled me to agree to Neeman's appointment. Was it me who appointed him?"

Appointing judges

Asked what they see as Neeman's greatest achievement in his three-year tenure as justice minister, people close to him say, "After Friedmann, who was totally alienated from [Supreme Court President Dorit] Beinisch and from the Supreme Court itself, Neeman succeeded in forging a dialogue in the wake of which about 190 judges have been appointed on his watch."

The Judicial Appointments Committee is one of the most important entities in the country. It is comprised of the justice minister, another minister, an MK from the opposition, an MK from the coalition, three Supreme Court justices and two representatives of the Bar Association. This is the group which determines the identity of the Israeli courts, decided on judges for the Supreme Court and appoints the head of the judiciary, the president of the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu assigned Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud ) as the second minister on the committee. There was a real flap over the choice of the opposition MK. Coalition chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud ) supported Uri Ariel (National Union ) for the slot, against Roni Bar-On (Kadima ). Ariel defeated Bar-On by one vote and got the post. MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ) was chosen as the coalition representative. "This is the first time in the country's history that the government and the Knesset are sending four right-wing extremists to this committee," Bar-On told the Knesset. "Now they need the fifth person in order to elect the president of the Supreme Court ... There is no one in charge in the Justice Ministry, but there is, regrettably, someone with a vested interest."

The election of judges to all courts requires a simple majority of five of the nine committee members. That is also the majority needed to choose the president of the Supreme Court. In contrast, the votes of seven members of the committee are needed to elect a Supreme Court justice.

In August 2009, about four months after taking over as justice minister, Neeman was able to get three new justices appointed: Isaac Amit, Neal Hendel and Uzi Vogelman. "Despite the suspiciousness toward him, he succeeded in bringing the sides closer to him and obtaining agreements. This followed a long period under Daniel Friedmann when it was impossible to appoint Supreme Court justices," says one of those involved in the committee's work.

A source involved in the process of choosing Supreme Court justices under Neeman's baton last week described the minister's conduct in bringing about the justices' appointment at the outset of his term of office as "the art of mediation and arbitration." Neeman split the committee in two and sent each group to a separate room. His group was in one room, while in the other room was the bloc of three justices and the representative of the Bar Association, attorney Rachel Ben Ari, who was perceived as being identified with Justice Beinisch.

Neeman went from one room to the other, explaining to each group why this deal was to its advantage. "It was very important for him to be seen in the eyes of the committee as something different, after the Friedmann period. Judicious, moderate and conciliatory," says a source who is knowledgeable about the workings of the committee.

In a deal for the appointment of Supreme Court justices, according to another source who is involved in the committee's work, Neeman cobbled together agreements from both camps to appoint District Court Judges Noam Sohlberg (a resident of the settlement of Alon Shvut and the coveted candidate of the Neeman group ); Zvi Zylbertal, a close associate of Beinisch; and Tel Aviv District Court President Dvora Berliner. In the event, Daphne Barak-Erez, Uri Shoham and Zylbertal received the Judicial Appointments Committee's full backing to become Supreme Court justices on Friday. Sohlberg, meanwhile, was backed by eight of the panel's members.

Neeman's initial deal was torpedoed by Beinisch, who made it clear that the public atmosphere does not permit justices to be elected at this time. In the view of some, this was Beinisch's way of expressing her strong objection against Neeman's meddling in Bar Association affairs and his silence in the face of some Likud members' assaults on the Supreme Court (which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on hold last week ).

Beinisch will retire next month, but Neeman will remain in office. In the past three years, a few politicians have heard him contemplate resigning. No one need be surprised if he does. What's certain is that he won't be sorry that Noam Sohlberg is on the Supreme Court panel and if Asher Grunis is its president.

Final installment in the series on Yaakov Neeman, "Signed, sealed, deposed: The letter that nearly did in Yaakov Neeman," will be posted on Haaretz.com later today.