Avoiding the 'Land Mines'

Netanyahu appointed Yaakov Neeman as justice minister to be a troubleshooter in his troubled coalition. But it turns out 'Yankele' is causing the problems, not solving them.

At the Likud ministers' meeting on Sunday in the Prime Minister's Office, Limor Livnat wondered aloud why, after the decision was made to add two more members to the Turkel panel investigating the flotilla raid, no women were chosen.

Yaakov Neeman
Amos Biderman

Why, Livnat asked, was a woman not considered for this committee? She cited the Women's Equal Rights Law, and a High Court of Justice ruling mandating that when ministers appoint public panels, they must make a special effort to include women.

In this case, the minister behind the appointments was Yaakov Neeman. "We asked several women, but they all refused," he told Livnat. "In addition, the legal adviser in the Prime Minister's Office disqualified five other female candidates."

Netanyahu interjected, turning to Neeman, "Yankele, are you telling me that my legal counsel disqualifies women?" And Neeman replied: "Yes."

The meeting adjourned. Two ministers, Livnat and Dan Meridor, raced to the office of the prime minister's legal adviser, attorney Shlomit Barnea-Fargo, and relayed Neeman's version of events.

"This absolutely never happened," Barnea-Fargo insisted. "I did not receive the names of any female candidates," she exclaimed, standing in the doorway where all could hear.

Meridor and Livnat then went to the meeting where ministers were scheduled to vote on adding Prof. Miguel Deutsch and veteran diplomat Reuven Merhav to the Israelis on the panel, along with Jacob Turkel, Shabtai Rosen and Amos Horev. When the proposal was discussed, the two Likud ministers told their colleagues that the legal adviser emphatically denied what Neeman had said at the Likud meeting. The ministers stared inquiringly at the honorable justice minister, but Neeman did not utter a word.

Two days ago, I asked the Prime Minister's Office about this turn of events. "The legal adviser was never given female candidates, and did not disqualify any women," Netanyahu's office replied. Barnea-Fargo, for her part, produced a written opinion stating that a woman must be appointed to the Turkel panel, and that not doing so presents a "legal difficulty." Women's organizations petitioned the High Court this week.

The "legal difficulty" stems not only from the requirement to appoint a woman, but also from the composition of the panel in question. As long as Neeman and Turkel searched for a woman candidate with expertise in international law - and they indeed turned to three, each of whom refused - they had some basis to explain the absence of women members. But the moment they gave up on finding international law experts, and instead choose Prof. Deutsch, an authority on civil law (who is also a friend of Turkel's ), and Merhav, a former Foreign Ministry official, they lost any justification for the lack of women.

"This is where they made their mistake," Livnat tersely told her cabinet colleagues.

Neeman's office said yesterday that what he meant at the Likud meeting was that efforts had been made to find a woman for the Turkel committee, but that this had failed: Some women refused to serve, and others were ruled out in screening by "the office of the government's legal adviser." The minister "took steps to appoint a woman to the committee, but was unsuccessful."

"Yankele" Neeman was appointed justice minister directly by the prime minister. He was proposed by Benny Begin and Reuven Rivlin, as a compromise after Avigdor Lieberman insisted that Daniel Friedmann, the former justice minister, remain in office in the new government. Netanyahu thought Neeman would be his "troubleshooter" in a government coalition that included partners like Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, helping him navigate the "land mines." A lawyer with a thriving practice and hefty fees, Neeman's mediation talents have a lofty reputation. However, 16 months after the cabinet's formation, many government sources say he is more of a troublemaker than a troubleshooter. But Netanyahu continues to trust him.

This political attorney - who claims he is not a politician, and that he has no commitment to any political party - does not have any intentions to compromise Netanyahu. The problem is that Neeman clings to an antiquated repertoire of right-wing, religious and ultra-nationalist conceptions. On extremely sensitive topics such as civil liberties, he joins forces with the most radically conservative members of the cabinet, such as Eli Yishai, Lieberman and Yuval Steinitz.

Take, for example, the Turkel committee. It started as a sterile, non-authoritative panel of three elder statesmen. The public was appalled. Then Turkel grasped that the committee had turned into a national joke. He threatened to resign if he didn't get more members and more authority. Netanyahu had no choice. This infuriated Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who discovered that the agreeable assurances he had received that the investigations into naval commandos would remain classified had become meaningless.

The Turkel committee will receive records of these investigations, and soldiers' identities may be revealed. And now the issue of a female representative has popped up. But how the High Court resolves it remains to be seen.

We should not forget the loyalty declaration: It was Neeman who introduced the amendment to the Citizenship Law stipulating that a person seeking Israeli citizenship must take an oath of allegiance to Israel as a "democratic and Jewish state." As if no Arabs live here. Labor ministers, along with Meridor and Begin, tried to moderate the draft, but Neeman flatly rejected them. Even Netanyahu thought the phrase "Jewish state" was needlessly provocative. The government agreed to postpone its decision on the matter and look for a compromise.

Neeman also aggravated Netanyahu by adding provision No. 3 to the conversion bill backed by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem, in order to link the legislation to the issue of citizenship under the Law of Return. This provision enraged some members of the U.S. Jewish community. In this case as well, Netanyahu was forced to announce that he would not bring the proposal to a government vote, thereby burying it.

Two months ago, when the cabinet learned about the problematic conversion bill, Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein argued with Rotem about the wisdom of that same clause.

"What do you want from me?" Rotem asked Edelstein, the latter recalled. "Go to Yankele - the clause belongs to Neeman." Edelstein was incredulous. "I checked with the Justice Ministry," Edelstein said this week. "To my surprise, it turned out to be true."

"Neeman has acquired a reputation as someone who creates problems, and then is later summoned to resolve them," one government minister said this week. "The problem is that he does not always solve them, and we are stuck with them," the minister added.

Referring to a condition in which a person inflicts harm on a family member in order to draw attention, another minister who knows Neeman well put it this way: "Neeman is a political Munchausen syndrome, by proxy."

Media matters

Critical media coverage of Yair Netanyahu's 19th birthday party did not disrupt the high spirits in the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday. Workers, and especially their boss, were thrilled to hear that the free newspaper Israel Hayom, the paper of choice in the Netanyahu household, has overtaken Yedioth Ahronoth in circulation, according to the latest TGI survey. That sweet taste of revenge pushed aside the discomfit over how the media covered the birthday party, which thanks to an ugly twist of fate, was being held when reports started to stream in about the helicopter catastrophe in Romania.

Netanyahu faced an awkward situation. Between 5:30 P.M. and 6 P.M., 100 guests showed up at his official residence. An hour later, he was told about the tragedy. The residence has a room with equipment to make phone calls and get live updates. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that in situations like the one on Wednesday, the prime minister mostly receives updates.

He is not the one who necessarily manages the crisis, however: In this case, from his office, Netanyahu heard from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was in the U.S., and the IDF chief of staff.

As always with the premier, the key issue was public perception. Somebody on his staff had to warn him that the juxtaposition of these circumstances could spur a public relations disaster. Somebody should have told him: Apologize to your guests, tell them something urgent has come up, and go to your office. Sara will be upset? You're used to that.

Netanyahu is sensitive and vulnerable in cases where the border between family matters and national issues become blurred. About a year ago he was late to a cabinet meeting, and his tardiness turned the rumor mill. It was subsequently explained that a speck had entered his eye. Another time, he quarantined himself in his residence, explaining that he was worried about incurring swine flu since the driver of a worker in his office was reportedly ill. Similarly, the circumstances of his recent, sudden cancellation of a trip to Germany, where he would have headed a delegation of 10 ministers, remain clouded in mystery.

Finally, one has to ask the question that was not asked: How is it that a 19-year-old, a soldier who enjoys going to clubs and hanging out with his peers, ended up celebrating his birthday with 100 guests, most of whom were at least twice his age?