Israel’s Ethical Gatekeepers Are Asleep

The interior minister is an ex-con, a convicted PM received a light sentence, a police commander tainted by scandal was reinstated, and the new AG shows problematic behavior.

Ido Baum
Ido Baum
Arye Dery.
Interior Minister Arye Dery.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky
Ido Baum
Ido Baum

Here is a collection of depressing facts. Our new interior minister, Arye Dery, is an ex-con, convicted of one of the most serious public service crimes on the books. Moreover, he had previously promised not to accept the role of interior minister, the scene of his crime, which turned out to be lie.

The new police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, who is supposed to fight corruption, reinstated a senior commander whose suspected solicitation of donations would constitute a disciplinary infraction. Just a week ago, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky that donations can constitute bribery. The police chief did not internalize the message.

Last week, the Supreme Court also ruled that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who took cash briberies while minister of industry, trade and labor, will go to prison for just 18 months (Dery received twice as long.)

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich speaking in December 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

And we have yet to mention the investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over trips abroad at the expense of businessmen (Bibitours) and investigations against his wife. The latter will probably be decided upon by the incoming attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, who the current AG believes mishandled a serious fraud affair in the army (the Harpaz affair) as military advocate general.

Ehud Olmert arrives at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem December 29, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Are you burning to know what will be the result? To paraphrase the only significant thing the new police commissioner has said since taking office, you can lower the pressure.

The gatekeepers are in retreat from the last bastion of the fight against governmental and establishment corruption in Israel. The court is showing weakness. The retreat is on all fronts, and not only in the fight against government corruption. The government’s approval of the gas deal, despite objection by the previous antitrust commissioner and the use of every possible bypass, is the reflects the government’s surrender to the capitalists. Note that a new antitrust commissioner has still not been appointed. Let the candidates simmer on low flame until tender.

Protesters wear masks depicting Prime Minister Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and outgoing Economy Minister Arye Dery at a rally against the gas deal in Tel Aviv, November 7, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

By the way, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is retiring at the end of the month. Retrospectives on his tenure will soon arrive. Without violating animal rights, a field that was close to Weinstein’s heart throughout his tenure, we will focus on integrity. To be fair, the list is not extensive at all.

Achievements, failures

Weinstein fought corruption. Although he closed one case against Avidgdor Lieberman, he issued an indictment in another (which ended in acquittal). Some local authority officials were convicted during his time (though most of the investigations began under Menahem Mazuz.) He opened investigations against presidential candidates (and it’s a good thing he did,) indicted a former minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (may he live to 120,) backed the police’s purge of officers who molested women and approved a plea bargain with Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, who will sit in prison a year in exchange for information (that has yet to come to fruition) about a police commander. That’s how it is. Every AG has a list of achievements and failures.

Weinstein is proud, and to a certain degree justifiably so, that he managed to sink appointments that he deemed unfit for public service. He intervened in the appointment of General Yoav Galant as IDF chief of staff. Similarly, Weinstein fought in the High Court to remove indicted mayors, and he succeeded in changing the norms in this area. He deserves a medal of honor.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at Herzliya Conference. June 2015. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In contrast to his pugnacity in purifying public service appointments, Weinstein failed when the appointments reached the government’s table. Galant was appointed construction and housing minister. Dery was appointed interior minister. Mendelblit was approved as AG, although Weinstein certainly objected. Weinstein also believed he could defend against Dery’s return to the Interior Ministry. The conclusion: When the fight for integrity reaches decision makers at the political level, the gatekeepers stutter.

Dery is an ex-con who served his sentence and sat out the requisite period of political exile for a crime of moral turpitude. In a well-managed democracy, a minister or senior public official whose crimes border on moral turpitude retires forever. Sometimes, retirement precedes the trial. This norm was reinforced recently by the departure of former interior minister Silvan Shalom and MK Yinon Megel from political life. That is how it should be.

Dery didn’t retire. He didn’t give up. And he probably didn’t learn the moral about a public servant’s proper behavior. Had he learned his lesson, he would have passed on the interior portfolio. And we haven’t even begun discussing the judicial nature of some of the interior minister’s functions. It is inconceivable that such power be entrusted to someone previously convicted of violating the public trust. By the way, Dery held such authority in his previous ministerial positions, which was also improper.

We should also remember that Dery did not wage a regular legal battle. Olmert, who refuses to accept the court ruling that he took a bribe, is a pussycat compared to Dery’s aggressiveness. The latter enlisted political, religious and spiritual power in order to undermine the legitimacy of the state prosecutor and the court system. Dery played a fundamental role in the crisis of confidence among sizeable portions of Israeli society relative to the courts. What is broken is neither easily nor quickly repaired.

As Weinstein himself remarked in an opinion he wrote for the government ahead of the approval of Dery’s appointment as interior minister, the High Court deemed the very appointment of Dery to be a minister as a decision that lies “on the border of reasonability,” but approved it anyway.

Irresponsible evasion

Supreme Court Justice Uzi Fogelman remarked that the question whether the appointment is proper needs to be decided “in the public sphere.” This is irresponsible evasion, which Weinstein also engaged in when he summed up his well-known decision to close the case in Lieberman’s straw company affair with the words “Let the public judge.”

The High Court and the attorney general are betraying their roles. What is the public sphere? The public sphere in Israel is not controlled by the public, which is sick of corruption, expresses scorn for politicians (who are always last on the scale of public confidence) in all public opinion polls, but is smothered under the struggles of day-to-day economic and security existence.

The politicians, who make sure to reinforce their power, strengthen their interests and provide benefits for their associates, are the ones who in large part control the public sphere. Are parents who have to keep their children busy at home while a terrorist it out there somewhere and worry about the cost of living and how to earn a comensurate salary free to act in the public sphere for or against Dery’s appointment as interior minister? The public sphere in Israel is pushed to the limit of its capabilities.

The Israeli is public is busy just surviving. Gatekeepers – now it’s your turn.

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