For Justice Minister Neeman, Israel's Law Is Netanyahu's Law

He shocks his cabinet colleagues with about-faces, disagrees with his ministry's staff and dismays law professors by not defending the court and judicial systems more vociferously.

Two weeks ago, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman packed a bag and headed off for a skiing holiday in the French Alps village of La Tania with his wife Hadassah and three of their 33 grandchildren. They stayed at an Alpine-style village inn at an elevation of 1,400 meters, with direct access to the slopes. The resort guests, who include religious Israeli Jews, have at their disposal a strictly kosher kitchen, a synagogue with a Torah scroll, ski passes and the hotel's pool.

Skiing is Neeman's main hobby, and he goes on these vacations three times a year. When not on vacation, he gets up at 4:30 A.M. every day, prays, swims at Jerusalem's glittering David Citadel Hotel and then takes his Lexus (he's well off enough not to need a government vehicle ) to the Justice Ministry in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where he works until the late evening.

Yaakov Neeman - Emil Salman
Emil Salman

The skiing junkets give the 72-year-old energy for the many conflicts that await him back in Israel: the Knesset versus the Supreme Court, the government's liberal minority versus its strong conservative bloc, high-ranking suspects versus the prosecution. Neeman plays a key role in all these battles, and not necessarily as mediator or compromise-seeker.

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Speaking in private, Neeman reportedly has fierce criticism of State Prosecutor Moshe Lador and his office. The state prosecution under Lador marks targets and then files indictments without sufficient evidence, Neeman reportedly alleges. Neeman is both the minister most critical of the state prosecution and the minister in charge of it.

Neeman's latest example of Lador's target-marking is the indictment against attorney Yaakov Weinroth, who was recently acquitted. A few days after Lador decided to indict Weinroth, the state prosecutor joined Neeman on a tour of the Tel Aviv district prosecution's financial crimes unit. There, Lador told Neeman about his dramatic decision concerning Weinroth.

"I told him he was making a serious mistake and that the case would end in an acquittal," Neeman has said in private conversations. He apparently spoke several times with Lador during the trial, repeating his prediction each time.

"Did I tell you this is how it would end?" he asked Lador after the trial.

"How did you know? Did you talk to the judge?" Lador retorted sarcastically.

"No, no," Neeman said.

"Did you read the case file?" Lador wanted to know.

"No," Neeman said again.

Neeman returned to the Justice Ministry in 2009, after a brief two-month stint as minister 15 years ago. "I'm not here to seek revenge," he said.

"This is libel intended to keep me from serving as justice minister," he stated in his police interrogation in the summer of 1996.

Lador, who was then the Jerusalem district prosecutor, initially supported the indictment against Neeman, but recanted the following day.

"I wish to retract my support for the indictment against Neeman," Lador declared in a meeting with Ben-Yair and the state prosecutors. "I am concerned that Neeman's announcement that he intends to replace Attorney General Ben-Yair might have influenced my decision."

Lador actually thought there was enough evidence to indict Neeman, but the situation bothered him. In any case, it appears Neeman still feels highly antagonistic toward the institution Lador now heads.

In other private conversations, Neeman hints that Lador and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein are not on good terms. Neeman told one of his political colleagues that he and Weinstein agree that the state prosecution urgently needs an oversight body. "Then why doesn't one already exist?" the colleague asked. "Because someone is out to block it," Neeman replied, referring to Lador.

Holy trinity

As justice minister, Neeman has often found himself squaring off against his staff on issues related to public sector corruption. This top attorney, who gave legal advice to prime ministers including Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, supports blocking investigations of sitting prime ministers. On this issue he and Weinstein definitely do not see eye to eye. Neeman thinks such investigations are tremendously expensive because they necessitate new elections. In a rare move, Neeman also did not adopt the opinion of his ministry's Amnesties and Pardons Division to recommend against pardoning former Shas minister Shlomo Benizri, who in 2008 was convicted on corruption charges. Instead, in a highly unusual move, he passed the issue on to President Shimon Peres without voicing an opinion on the matter.

When then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said that someone suspected of criminal wrongdoing should not be serving as a minister, referring to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Neeman's reaction was to declare that Mazuz should not be concerned with such matters. "The Hebrew sages said there are subjects on which it's best to be silent," Neeman said in response to Mazuz's stance.

Neeman believes the police and the prosecution have a secret alliance with the media: The media defend the police and the prosecution, covering up their failure to fight crime, and in return, the police and prosecution feed the media sensational material from sensitive investigations. Neeman does not like the media. He is an ardent supporter of two bills aimed at protecting the high-rollers from the media: an amendment to the Libel Law and a bill that would reduce the media's ability to publish raw material from police investigations.

"He burns with fire when it comes to anything having to do with the holy trinity: the media, the High Court of Justice and the state prosecution. He says there is no democracy in Israel - that there is nothing the elected representatives can do in the face of these three branches," says a senior attorney who has known Neeman for years.

Right of silence

Silence has been Neeman's favorite mode during his two and a half years as justice minister. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud ) suggested him for the job. Rivlin thought Neeman would be acceptable to senior coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman due to his opposition to what he calls the Supreme Court's excessive intervention in legislation. Neeman is not an elected representative, and thus is not accountable to anyone.

"I have no primaries," he likes to tell politicians in a barbed tone.

He doesn't give interviews, and claims he doesn't read the newspapers or care what they write about him. He calls Haaretz "Der Stuermer," a reference to the Jew-baiting Nazi propaganda newspaper, and dubs the free daily owned by his good friend, American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, "Israel Ayom" ("Terrible Israel" ); the paper's real name is Israel Hayom, meaning Israel Today ), due to the fierce attacks by its writers Dan Margalit and Mordechai Gilat.

A reporter who asked Neeman to respond to a story a few months ago heard him laughing on the phone, just before he hung up. "All those who wish for professional appointments should heed this example," one senior politician notes.

Immediately after the Knesset passed the so-called boycott law, which seeks to intimidate people calling to boycott products from the settlements, the media sought Neeman's reaction. "I am experienced in cross-examinations and I reserve the right to remain silent," he replied. (He supported the legislation in the cabinet. )

"I told him I was disappointed that he hadn't set limits amid the wave of antidemocratic legislation," says his former law partner and his good friend MK Isaac Herzog (Labor ). "Despite his conservative outlook and his decades-long belief that the High Court of Justice needs its powers trimmed, someone of his status should have spoken out. He is leaving the field to an extremist gang in the Knesset that is plotting nostop to destroy Israel as a liberal democracy. Thus, he and Netanyahu are perceived as giving their blessing to this legislation."

"I had no great hopes from him," says law professor Uriel Procaccia. "Neeman never gave me cause to see him as a bastion of the rule of law. I regret having to say that I am sorry we have a minister like this. He seems quite pleased by all the legislative initiatives assaulting the Supreme Court and the judicial system. In fact, he seems to be in league with them."

Another law professor, Yoram Shachar, says Neeman is the first justice minister he can remember "who operates in the shadows, based on unknown motives." He would have expected Neeman to be a beacon in terms of preserving the rule of law, but at a time when the Knesset is advancing bills aimed at harming the Supreme Court and the judicial system, Neeman's voice is not being heard.

Neeman has never been one for talk. In the 1970s, the founders of the Gush Emunim organization used to meet occasionally in his office and seek his advice. "Neeman believed that the principal value of politics lies in pressure, not speeches," one of the founders, Gershon Shafet, wrote in a book. That seems to be the essence of Neeman's style.

Neeman influences legislation as chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, one of the crucial places for transforming bills into law. The minister can put a bill on the agenda or freeze it. Neeman backed some legislation that his staff at the ministry opposed. For example, he backed the original Nakba Law (it was later softened ), which would have legislated a three-year prison term for treating Independence Day as a day of mourning.

"We went through a terrible Holocaust, in which more than six million Jews were killed, and it is untenable that our independence become a day of mourning," Neeman said.

He also supported legislation permitting communities in the Negev and Galilee to screen potential residents. The law's opponents argued that it was intended to block Arabs. Neeman said he backed the legislation because of "the existential need for communal strength, resilience and social cohesion as a condition for the communities' success and survival."

It was particularly interesting to see how Neeman behaved regarding bills intended to destroy local human-rights organizations and block their foreign funding. These bills, sponsored by MKs from Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, have the support of both Netanyahu and Lieberman.

Weinstein objected to them vehemently. Neeman sat out, abstaining from the vote in which the ministerial committee approved one of the bills, claiming that as a lawyer he had represented various associations. Nevertheless, even though Neeman also represented public companies, he headed a committee that recommended that there be no direct intervention in executive salaries.

Conflict of interest

A few months ago, Neeman ran into MK Roni Bar-On (Kadima ) in the Knesset. At the time there was controversial legislation in the pipeline, sponsored by MKs Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu ), Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin (both Likud ). The bill would have made Bar Association chairman Doron Barzilai, a Neeman associate, one of the bar's two members on the Judicial Appointments Committee. The bill was intended to create a bloc of five right-wingers to counterbalance the bloc headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, and thus influence the choice of new judges and the next Supreme Court president.

Neeman did not take part in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation's first meeting on the subject. The vote was a tie - five ministers in favor, five against. As a result, the proposal did not pass. After the vote Neeman ran into Bar-On. "You see? I didn't take part in the vote, because it would appear to be a conflict of interest," the justice minister bragged.

In the meantime, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beiteinu ) filed an appeal. The committee met again under Neeman, and when the vote deadlocked again - eight for and eight against - he declared, "I vote in favor."

The normally reserved Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor was furious. "That is a brutal move," he fumed at Neeman. Meridor considers the bill (which was frozen this week amid criticism ) dangerous: "An attempt to bend judges or induce them to curry favor with politicians. They are trying to create an artificial majority. And the result will damage the public's belief in judges' independence."

"It is a great affront," Prof. Shachar adds. "As justice minister, Neeman is behaving the same way he did as a private lawyer. A justice minister cannot use manipulation and guile. That may be legitimate for a lawyer, but not for a minister. His client is the law. His behavior in changing the Bar Association's representatives to the Judicial Appointments Committee is an example of this."

"It's unfounded to expect that Neeman will oppose every bill that reaches the Knesset," retorts MK Yariv Levin, who is at the forefront of some of the provocative bills, including a proposal for a Knesset committee to hold hearings for Supreme Court candidates. Regarding legislation aimed at changing the bar's representatives, which he helped sponsor, Levin says this is an example of Neeman's effort to take "necessary minimal steps" to try to correct "specific shortcomings."

'It's all Yaakov'

A few weeks ago, a certain person met with Netanyahu. Toward the end of the conversation he asked the prime minister, "Why are you encouraging this antidemocratic legislation? It will bring the elites down on you." Netanyahu looked his interlocutor in the eyes and said, "It's all Yaakov."

Netanyahu himself supported some of the controversial initiatives that are flooding the Knesset, such as the amendment to the Libel Law, the bill to limit human-rights organization's foreign funding and the proposal to silence mosques. However, Neeman is creating unnecessary battles for the prime minister and opening unwanted fronts, particularly in his assault on the Supreme Court. In private conversations, Neeman claims that he and Netanyahu have coordinated every move.

They have known each other for years. Neeman reportedly served as a mediator for Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu when their marriage was on the rocks. In 1993, Netanyahu admitted in an interview that he had an extramarital affair. After the confession, Neeman reportedly drafted an agreement to help restore the Netanyahus' relationship.

In private conversations Neeman denies such an agreement ever existed. "He treated Sara with great sensitivity at the time," says a friend of the minister. "He gave her a room in his law office so she could write her master's dissertation." Recently, in a cabinet meeting (where he rarely says anything ), Neeman delivered a eulogy for Shmuel Ben Artzi, Sara Netanyahu's father. "He won the confidence of Sara Netanyahu, and they are close," says a friend of hers.

Netanyahu also frequently consulted with Neeman when the latter had a private practice. Neeman, considered a superb negotiator, drew up a secret memorandum of understandings between the prime minister and Ariel Sharon before the latter became foreign minister during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister. He also mediated the secret talks between Netanyahu and Ehud Barak at Mossad headquarters when the two attempted to form a national-unity government. Netanyahu can count on Neeman's discretion - and his vote.

Despite being right wing, he supported Netanyahu's moves on the peace front. In the first Netanyahu government he supported the Wye agreement, and in the present government he backed the settlement construction freeze.

What worries Netanyahu is Neeman's running battles with the Supreme Court. Netanyahu also knows that in private conversations he can blame Neeman for the antidemocratic legislation. He knows the justice minister will not throw down the gauntlet. After all, Netanyahu is his top client.

The split that failed

In November 2009, Neeman invited Mazuz and Lador to his home in Jerusalem's posh Rehavia neighborhood for a late-night meeting. He informed them that he soon intended to submit a proposal to split the attorney general's powers between two positions. The guests both felt that Neeman intended to pull off a dramatic coup in the form of an unheard-of innovation: splitting the state prosecution into a criminal division, under a general prosecutor, and a civil and administrative division (including the High Court of Justice ), under the attorney general. They felt Neeman wanted to hand them a fait accompli, without giving them an opportunity to present their objections.

Lador was quick to respond. Shortly after the meeting he fired off a sharply worded letter to Neeman and sent it to everyone in the State Prosecutor's Office. He accused Neeman of trying to rashly push through a dangerous plan without having held a professional and public discussion, and without examining its implications. Mazuz was equally incensed.

Neeman was furious at both of them, but especially at Lador, who obtained surprising support from former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar. "Lador is not an officer who has to stand to attention," Shamgar stated.

But it was actually Netanyahu who froze Neeman's plan. Even Lieberman had reservations about the move. Neeman's inability to implement the plan exposed his primary weakness: the absence of a political hinterland. Some coalition members thought that after this abject failure Neeman would return to his flourishing law practice, but he clung to his cabinet seat.

On July 10, the cabinet met to discuss another Neeman-instigated revolution. This time he wanted to promote an amendment to the Courts Law that would let magistrate's court presidents or vice presidents order that civil suits be referred to an arbiter - a private lawyer - who would hand down rulings.

"I cannot accept perversions of justice," Neeman said ardently, as he explained that the plan was intended to reduce the courts' caseload. Neeman's revolutionary idea had many opponents, who noted its potential land mines, not least of all the potential conflict of interest for the lawyer arbiters. Moreover, there was no guarantee that lawyers would act with judges' objectivity.

"The bill is nothing less than an attempt by the government to acquire cheap judicial services," former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner said. "Let's admit the truth: We are talking about the privatization of the judicial system. Instead of shortening judicial procedures, this bill would hamper the system. It's a disaster."

But Neeman was undeterred, promoting the idea energetically and asking ministers to approve it at that cabinet meeting. He reported that he had discussed the matter with the courts administration and Beinisch. Witnesses reported that Netanyahu asked Neeman if the administration and Beinisch supported the idea. "Yes," the justice minister replied without hesitation. The cabinet duly approved Neeman's bill.

A few weeks later, Beinisch, who knew Neeman had told the prime minister that she supported his revolution, attended the annual Bar Association event. "I find this proposal problematic and believe it raises issues of principle," Beinisch told the gathering, which included Neeman. "My main concern is that the bill would privatize the Israeli judiciary ... It is hard to ignore concerns that this legislation could adversely affect access to the courts, and it erodes the judiciary's most basic roles."

Why did Neeman tell Netanyahu that Beinisch backed his move when she was dead-set against it? Neeman's associates claim she supported the plan. Beinisch's associates say she opposed it from the start.

This wasn't the first time that Neeman pitted his word against someone else's. At a meeting of Likud ministers - as reported by Haaretz correspondent Yossi Verter - Culture Minister Limor Livnat asked Neeman why no women had been included on the committee investigating the Turkish flotilla to Gaza.

"We approached a few women and they all declined," Neeman said at the meeting, adding, "The legal adviser to the Prime Minister's Office disqualified another five women." Livnat checked this account and found it was false: No names were apparently ever given to the legal adviser to check, so she did not disqualify any women.

MK Jacob Edery (Kadima ) was also burned by Neeman. He and MK Miri Regev (Likud ) wanted to lower the passing bar grade for lawyers from 65 to 60. A few weeks ago, Edery ran into Neeman in the Knesset.

"Have you decided whether to support the change?" he asked the justice minister. "No, I am waiting for an opinion from the attorney general," Neeman replied. Optimistic, Edery attended the swearing-in ceremony for new lawyers in Jerusalem that evening. There he was surprised to hear Neeman declare that he would not back the change.

"I don't understand why he behaved the way he did," Edery told Haaretz. "I felt cheated."

Neeman's adviser responds

The justice minister's media adviser, Amatzia Bar-Moshe, stated in response to this article:

"The minister of justice works constantly [to bolster] the independence and strength of the state prosecution and has frequently spoken about the importance and professionalism of the State Prosecutor's Office. The minister meets regularly with the state prosecutor for ongoing professional discussions.

"At the same time, he has often noted the need for a body to monitor and review the state prosecution's conduct. Such bodies exist in a variety of similar fields. All this has been done openly, transparently and through dialogue.

"Regarding a pardon for Benizri: The justice minister's sent the president the ministry's position, and he will abide by whatever decision is made.

"In regard to the various bills: The justice minister is a member of the government, and thus his proposals were in line with the government's policy.

"The justice minister's position regarding the Supreme Court is that this is a cardinal body in the State of Israel. Any attempt by any of the relevant parties to say otherwise is groundless. In any discussion involving a possible conflict of interest, the justice minister declares this and recuses himself from handling the subject.

"Concerning the minister's work as a private attorney: For obvious reasons we will not comment.

"Regarding the remarks by 'judicial sources,' neither they nor their underlying motives are worthy of comment."

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Read this article in Hebrew