A bizarre letter, probably unprecedented even in a country that is fed up with orderly governmental procedure, was submitted last week to the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court. So peculiar is this affair that one cannot be faulted for suspecting, at least initially, that someone made use of the letterhead paper of the president of Israel without the president's knowledge. However, there is no point in summoning the police. The president in fact signed the letter, reversing his first name and his surname as usual- "Katsav Moshe" - a horizontal signature the end of which drifts leftward but under which is a line that thrusts rightward like an arrow.
The text of the letter (the repetitions and mistakes are in the original) looks high and low, or perhaps overseas, for a way to act as a character reference. "I hereby confirm that in the period 1988-1992, when I served as minister of transportation, I came to know very well ... I became cognizant of his concern and determination to work for the immigration of the Jews in the countries of the Soviet Union under the Communist regime ... He worked with great devotion to bring about the immigration of Jews from the countries of the Soviet Union by means of direct flights, and expressed readiness to invest resources, so that the Jews of the Soviet Union would be able to come to Israel on direct flights ... In the aforesaid manifestations I also came to know in addition his important diplomatic-security contribution ..." Did I already mention direct flights from the countries of the Soviet Union?
The letter, dated September 22, was sent "in the wake of your request," to attorney Yigal Arnon. It refers to "Mr. Yaakov Nimrodi," who is due to be sentenced on Sunday. If the sentence proves unsatisfactory to Nimrodi, or to the State Prosecutor's Office, there will be an appeal, or two appeals, perhaps, to the District Court and then to the Supreme Court. Then will come the turn of the president, the same president who has expressed his admiration for the defendant, to take part in the amnesty process, if this comes up.
Before Katsav, Ezer Weizman was the occupant of the President's Residence. He evaded the duty of justice and friendship to pardon Ofer Nimrodi, Yaakov's son and the publisher of the daily Ma'ariv (which Yaakov Nimrodi owns). Shortly afterward, Weizman was punished by heaven when his involvement in an embarrassing affair, on the brink of criminality, was exposed, and he was forced to resign before his second term of office was completed. He was replaced by Katsav.
Hardly had the new president had time to consider pardoning Ofer Nimrodi, who was sentenced to prison for a second time, when there was another event in the family: Yaakov, too, was convicted, and his sentence is about to be passed. The prosecutor, attorney Zmira Goldner, said of him that "he brutally trampled the substance and resilience of the judicial process and freedom of the press": he used his immense financial resources and his newspaper to obstruct Ofer's trial and persecute "public figures who serve devotedly," from an investigating officer of the police to the attorney general. "The defendant marked them as targets and the paper served as a platform." The president's voice was not heard in their defense - maybe he was hoarse. His throat cleared only for the sake of Nimrodi.
The president is the final station of the legal process: pen in hand, he can sign a pardon, though he needs the help of the justice minister - not the current one, Meir Sheetrit, but of future justice ministers such as Avigdor Lieberman or Uzi Landau - why not? The president's intervention before sentence has been passed is not only extremely rare - an affair on the scale of the Bus 300 affair (involving a Shin Bet security service attempt to cover up its agents' killing of two bus hijackers in 1984) is needed to generate such intervention - but also highly puzzling in its selectiveness. Perhaps every citizen who gets into trouble, is convicted by a court of law, and then remembers his close friendship with the former minister of transportation would also be the beneficiary of this kind of presidential letter (if he dared to ask for it), but in practice it was only the mind of attorney Yigal Arnon that came up with this brilliant idea.
Katsav was careful not to send the letter directly to Judge David Rosen, who is going to sentence Nimrodi. Instead, the addressee, Arnon, was authorized to take that action: "You may convey the contents of this letter to whomever you see fit," Katsav wrote, and Arnon saw fit. The president's letter was submitted to the court with great respect, together with a recommendation from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who used to be photographed with Nimrodi in court when their roles were reversed - in legal proceedings in which Sharon was at the center.
The main battle between the prosecution and the defense is not over the duration of the prison term that the judge is liable to impose on Nimrodi. His age and his health, certainly at the conclusion of the current chain of events, will almost certainly immunize him. The real struggle is over Nimrodi's status as a member - and as chairman - of a public company that owns, among other properties, the daily Ma'ariv. The prosecution asked the court to use its authority and declare that Nimrodi's conviction for obstruction of justice, in two separate counts, is detrimental to the public interest and disqualifies him from sitting on the board of directors. After all, what applies to holders of public office who are convicted of crimes of moral turpitude should apply equally to the Companies Law. One of the arguments cited by the prosecution is the distinction drawn by Supreme Court Justice Mishael Cheshin between mercy in a criminal proceeding and protection of the community in the context of such offenses.
Outside the court, though, the mark of disgrace will prove onerous for Nimrodi in two additional spheres: foreign affairs and defense. Nimrodi is the honorary consul of the Malagasy Republic (Madagascar). An honorary consul, who gets the license plate of a foreign representative (meaning free parking and bypassing traffic jams by using the public transportation lane) is a local citizen whose appointment procedure - and hence also the annulment of the appointment - is subject to Israeli law. The foreign country in question submits his name to the Foreign Ministry, following which his record is checked by the police and the Shin Bet, and finally the president signs the letter of appointment. A record involving crimes of moral turpitude must be reported to the Foreign Ministry and then to the president, who cancels the appointment. If there is no honor there is no consul, and no free parking.
Colonel (Res.) Nimrodi can also expect to be stripped of his military rank - a process that is now being applied to his son, Captain Ofer, because of his criminal past. The military-justice law requires action to be taken against them, though they can draw some consolation from the position taken by the military advocate general, Dr. Menahem Finkelstein, who prefers "demotion" - captain to sergeant, for example, or brigadier general to lieutenant colonel - to stripping convicted officers of their rank utterly and completely, as has been the procedure for the past 47 years. In support of his position, Finkelstein cites the need for gradualness and his request to transfer the process from the army - a committee of officers, the chief of staff and finally the defense minister - to a juridical body.
This is a Ben-Gurion type approach, in the dispute over a state commission of inquiry as against the pretension of cabinet ministers to act as judges, but Finkelstein is not a fanatic in a crusade against political interference in the army: he accepts the clause that authorizes the defense minister rather than the chief of staff to appoint the military advocate general (and also to appoint the military chief censor and the commander of Army Radio), who is exempt from the agonies of the attorney general and the president of the Military Court who must satisfy appointment committees.
You in Iraq, us in Iran
The United States Congress is of the opinion that Israel will not accept the nuclearization of Iran. Intelligence officials in the administration agree with this assessment, but play down and conceal their opinion in tardy written replies to questions that are asked publicly. Six years ago, in the spring of 1996, the directors of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency (the Pentagon's intelligence agency) testified before the joint intelligence committee of the two Houses of Congress. They were asked, separately, whether Israel would attack Iran if that country went nuclear. Both officials promised to answer at a later time. Their responses, which were delivered after Israel's Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah and during the contest between Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, had little public impact.
The DIA is junior to its civilian sister and is administered by a three-star general or admiral - one rank below the director of the CIA. This week, after a period in which there was no permanent director, the acting director, Admiral Lowell Jacoby, the former intelligence officer of the Pacific Ocean Command, the U.S. Navy and the chiefs of staff, was promoted and named head of the DIA. The Israel-Iran question extricated a wishy-washy reply from the DIA: Israel will react with great concern to developments that will lead to Iranian nuclear capability, and Iranian success in developing nuclear weapons will have a pronounced negative effect on stability in the region, and will run counter to the security interests of many countries in the Middle East.
The CIA was bolder in its reply, formulating out of its negative the circumstances that might turn this into a positive: "At least for the moment" an Israeli military attack does not look probable, if Iran should develop nuclear capability. Technical constraints and regional hostility would make such an attack problematic. The Israel Air Force will find it difficult to mount an operation against Iran, as it will have to overfly hostile states such as Syria or Iraq. The operation will be within the realm of possibility if the Israeli planes lift off from Turkey, following thorough planning and training. Israeli missiles apparently lack the precision required for an accurate attack on Iran. (The Americans are fond of the term "apparently" in the problematic context of Israel. General Anthony Zinni stated, when he was head of U.S. Central Command, that Israel "apparently" has nuclear capability). In addition, Israel will have to consider the benefits to be gained from such an attack, as against the price of the terrorism that Iran will foment in reaction against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world.
What was correct then is not necessarily correct today, following the major improvement in relations between the Israeli and Turkish air forces, and circumstances will change even more if a Saddam-less Iraq is deprived of its military might and no longer becomes a factor able to interfere with Israeli planes on the way to Iran. Major General (Res.) Meir Dagan, who takes over as head of the Mossad espionage agency at the end of this month, says that "Shi'ite Iran made a significant contribution to disseminating radical Islam and the use of terrorism as a central tool in its promotion. Iran not only contributed greatly to the spread of terrorism in the world beginning in the early 1980s, today it constitutes an important factor in cultivating terrorist groups from different ideological streams."
Dagan, who until now has not been known for his silence, has imposed a period of muteness on himself until he takes over at the Mossad, but just before he was informed of his appointment, he wrote the introduction to a book by Yoram Schweitzer and Shaul Shai on international terrorism and the events of September 11. In the introduction Dagan terms Hezbollah "the ward of Iran and the spearhead of its terror policy." Hezbollah, he noted, "maintains in Lebanon ties with terrorist groups that are connected to Al Qaida, such as Utzbat al Ansar."
If he had known that he would be serving as chief of the Mossad, Dagan might have refrained from launching a broadside at the two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel: "Egypt, and to some degree Jordan as well, are conducting a bitter war against these groups on their sovereign soil, but display `flexibility' toward them when they are outside their countries."
Terrorism, Dagan states, is "confidently" assuming "monstrous proportions," but can be fought by means of coordinated activity by the world's leaders. And when he urges that terrorism "be countered vigorously and uncompromisingly, and sooner rather than later," it is not difficult to guess what subject, and which country in particular, he will want to talk about with the heads of the Mossad's units immediately after making himself comfortable in the chair of the head of the Mossad.