A Court for Politicians

The chairman of the presidential committee that examined the structure of government, Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor, has two major messages on the subject of politicians' norms of behavior in Israel.

The chairman of the presidential committee that examined the structure of government, Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor, has two major messages on the subject of politicians' norms of behavior in Israel. In an interview with Haaretz last week, Magidor said that "what Israeli society lacks is mainly the concept of 'this isn't done.' There are all kinds of things that aren't written in the law books, but aren't proper." Israeli politicians, explained Magidor, "lack limits, or else they stretch the limits to the maximum with respect to what the law allows."

His second message is that "there are very few non-criminal sanctions on the behavior of elected officials, and it is necessary to think about a mechanism of public sanctions, rather than criminal ones." In the current situation, says Magidor, if someone is not convicted, "he can go to the public and says, 'I have been acquitted, my situation is fabulous.'" He related that Moshe Sharett used to say that "all my friends are going around with an acquittal. I have never been acquitted." During the meetings of the Magidor committee, the possibility of discussing the issue was raised. "However, for a lack of time we didn't do this. Perhaps we should be beating our breasts."


And not that Magidor is the only one who thinks so. Last summer nine Knesset members from various parties in the coalition and the opposition, headed by Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin of the Likud, submitted a proposal for a law to establish a disciplinary court for elected officials. These are among the best of the elected officials, none of whom, so far as is known, has ever been acquitted. In the explanatory material for the proposed law, the Knesset members wrote that "it has happened and it is happening that elected officials cut themselves off consciously from everything that happens surrounding the election procedure; they don't know and they don't want to know. In the absence of positive proof, it is not possible to prove intent, even when the elected official is found to have benefited from the closed eyes."

In the discussion of the proposed law in the Knesset, which took place last November, Beilin went into specifics: "There are those who say that it's their son who is responsible, and there are those who say that it's the treasurer who is responsible." According to the proposed law, "Such behavior on the part of an elected official is intolerable. It undermines the public's trust in its elected officials and leads to the cheapening of the entire legislature." They proposed obligating the elected official "to make certain that his election campaign is conducted in accordance with the letter of the law. Should it emerge that a family member or functionary in the campaign has been involved in violation of election laws, it will be possible to accelerate proceedings to terminate the elected official's tenure ... Going home is the sanction."

The proposed disciplinary committee would be appointed by the president and include a judge, a retired politician and an academic. It would be entitled to suspend or dismiss an elected official. Its decisions could be appealed to the Supreme Court. Beilin has related that it took a year to formulate the proposal for the law, and that senior jurists participated in the process.

The Knesset members' proposal expresses despair with the possibility that the voters will punish their elected officials. For many years now, the Israeli voter has not let any act of corruption influence the way he votes. In one exceptional case, the Aryeh Deri affair, it even compensated the convict with 17 Knesset seats.

Beilin asked that the government refrain from taking a stance on the proposed law and allow Knesset members to decide for themselves how they will vote. However, the government indeed took a stance - a firm one - against the proposal. In the end, those who would have to face the tribunal are Knesset members, and ministers less so.

It is quite embarrassing to read acting justice minister Meir Sheetrit's reply in the Knesset debate. Among the arguments he presented for opposing the law: The Political Parties Law is not the appropriate legislation for dealing with the problem, and the proposal does not concord with the regular rules that currently apply to terminating the service of elected officials. Likud MK Michael Eitan had a more meaningful argument, to the effect that it is not fitting that the Supreme Court determine who will be a member of Knesset.

The disgrace reached its climax in the voting. Thirty-six Knesset members voted against the proposal and only four in favor. Maybe the arrangement that the Knesset members proposed is not ideal. Perhaps the tribunal should have five members and not three. And for cases in which it must consider deposing a prime minister, it may be that nine very senior people should deliberate. Possibly the president should also serve as the instance of appeal. It could be stipulated that filing a criminal complaint against a politician would require the agreement of the Knesset House Committee.

It's possible to find a surfeit of solutions that will ensure the independence of the political disciplinary instances. By the same token, it is possible to stipulate that the punishment scale include both conditional suspension and a reprimand. What is the value of a reprimand? It will at least prevent the politician from claiming: "Happily, I have been acquitted." But it is clear that the political system urgently and desperately needs a disciplinary body. A coalition that is headed by a person who's been acquitted as much as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert needs such an tribunal more than anything else. It is also clear that the moment the Knesset rejected the nine Knesset members' proposal was a moment of extraordinary insensitivity even in Israeli political terms.

Perhaps now, after it has become clear that Olmert's government has become a government of people under investigation, the Knesset will come to its senses and discuss anew a proposal to establish a disciplinary court for politicians, this time with the appropriate seriousness.