Analysis

Israeli State Prosecutor’s Lenient Approach With VIPs Being Challenged in Court

Shai Nitzan has gone easy on a retired judge, a Prime Minister's Office employee and Netanyahu himself; how long will this continue?

Shai Nitzan.
Emil Salman

A court’s rejection of a plea bargain with a former judge sends a clear warning to State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. Ever since taking office, Nitzan has adopted an almost official policy liquidating criminal cases against senior officials and showing compassion to the well-connected.

This worrisome trend became evident shortly before he entered office as state prosecutor, when he authored an opinion justifying the closure of a case against then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, now the defense minister, was suspected of receiving millions of dollars from businessmen via front companies in Cyprus and the Virgin Islands.

FILE PHOTO: Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a political event in 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Soon after taking office, Nitzan and then-Attorney Generla Yehuda Weinstein concocted a lenient plea bargain with Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, who was caught on tape offering a $200,000 bribe to the head of the police’s fraud squad, the late Brig. Gen. Ephraim Bracha. The plea bargain deprived the public of the glimpse a public trial would have provided of the ties formed over the last decade between senior police officers and rabbis, whose courts also attract tycoons, politicians and white-collar organized crime suspects. The Pinto deal didn’t allow the public even a glimmer of the true picture.

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto being released from prison in the early hours of January 25, 2017.
Meged Gozani/Walla News

Nitzan’s merciful approach continued with Perach Lerner, a senior employee of the Prime Minister’s Office who was suspected of working to promote her husband’s business interests while deceiving the office’s legal advisor. Maj. Gen. Meni Yitzhaki, the head of the police’s investigations division, warned that if this case didn’t go to court, it would be very hard to investigate any future case of fraud and breach of trust by elected officials or civil servants. Yet Nitzan opted to forgo criminal proceedings and subject Lerner only to disciplinary proceedings.

But if the twisted logic of the Lerner decision was still barely tolerable, the Nitzan doctrine hit new heights in the case of Yitzhak Cohen, a former president of the Nazareth District Court charged with sexual harassment. Several years ago, an employee entered Cohen’s office to give him a document. Cohen sat her on his knee and put his hand under her shirt. To stop him, she told him she was about to be married and hastily got up, whereupon he hugged her.

Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit approved a plea bargain under which Cohen wouldn’t even be convicted. He would merely confess to the crime, pay the victim 2,500 shekels ($690) in compensation and volunteer for community service.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on January 16, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

Pinto, Lerner and Cohen all have something in common: They were represented by Roy Blecher, a talented, aggressive lawyer with good access to decision makers, and especially to Nitzan. Only a distinct social class can afford deluxe service like that provided by Blecher and other high-power attorneys. The masses who enter the halls of justice every day, in thousands of trials prosecuted by Nitzan’s subordinates, don’t have lawyers with the state prosecutor’s personal cellphone number. They can’t text him to arrange a lenient plea bargain.

The court’s cancelation of the key element of Cohen’s plea bargain, the absence of a conviction, sends Nitzan a message to pull himself together. For if he continues his lenient policy – which includes dragging his feet on the cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – then when he leaves office in another three years, he’ll be remembered as the man who laid the foundations of a two-lane justice system: a green lane for the well-connected and a red lane for everyone else.