Law and Disorder

Prisoners are being released early, there's chaos in courtrooms and the judicial system is on the verge of collapse, but no one seems to care that the prosecutors' strike is entering its sixth week - including the justice minister and prime minister

A senior state prosecutor who has now been on strike for 33 days told an old friend how he and his associates have been appealing to ministers and public officials and writing emotional letters, only to be greeted by shrugs. Dangerous suspects are being released daily, prisoners are being freed before they finish their terms, and no one seems to care. We've tried everyone in the Prime Minister's Office, complained the prosecutor, and nobody is listening.

Netanyahu Neeman Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman

In less than a week, the lawyer added, the 45-day period for submitting appeals against the verdict in the Tzachi Hanegbi political appointments case will end. The State Prosecutor's Office has said it would appeal, but at present nobody is handling it.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court president complains in public that the legal system is collapsing. The public security minister talks about irreversible damage to law enforcement. The justice minister warns about "the complete collapse of the justice system" - and nobody raises a finger.

State prosecutors are demanding improved working conditions that would cost between NIS 9 million and NIS 15 million a year. That figure should be seen in perspective: Should the strike not be settled soon, the statute of limitations will expire on a NIS 40-million tax case in Haifa, and the state will have to forfeit its claim.

Before the strike began, following long discussions between the Finance Ministry and the prosecutors' workers committee, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman told the lawyers: "I will get involved. I will help you, I will help improve your work conditions, so long as you don't strike." The prosecutors, who do not trust Neeman, rejected this offer.

During the first weeks of the strike, Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein tried to forge a compromise. Two weeks into the strike, leading prosecutors came to speak with Neeman. The district prosecutors drew up their list of grievances.

"I accept what you are saying," Neeman told them. "Your work terms could be improved. But as the person who heads this framework, I see the broader picture. I have served as finance minister, I worked in the private sector, I have considerable experience in negotiations, arbitration and agreements. I promise to lead negotiations with the Finance Ministry on your behalf. Stop striking, and I will get involved in this matter."

One district prosecutor said: "The most experienced lawyers in the State Prosecutor's Office are sitting here. We have managed hundreds of proceedings and plea bargain deals. How is it that we cannot reach an agreement on our own matters?"

"Don't worry, I'll be your man, just stop the strike," replied Neeman.

"We need to hand our workers committee some sort of achievement," said the attorneys.

"I am willing to meet with the committee," stated Neeman. Two days later, they met in his office. On hand were also Weinstein and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador. For 30 years we haven't striked, complained the head of the workers committee.

"I understand you," said Neeman. "Let's do the following: I will invite an official from the Finance Ministry, and we'll start negotiations. I will clear my calendar; apart from cabinet meetings, I will deal with this alone until we find a solution."

The prosecutors asked to think about this offer. After a break, a low-ranking Finance Ministry official turned up, which angered Lador.

"Are you kidding?" he said to Neeman.

"Do you know how hard it was to get him here?" Neeman responded.

The justice minister urged that negotiations start immediately, and that the strikers end their action. A fairly typical Neeman solution.

"I will accompany you," Neeman promised the attorneys. "I will get for you more than you have received. I will use all the weight I have. Trust me."

"No thanks," said the prosecutors. "Talk with us while we are striking. If we end the strike and the negotiations fail, we won't be able to resume the strike. We would look ridiculous."

"If you don't end the strike by 9:30 A.M. tomorrow, I will hold a press conference and say that you are to blame," Neeman threatened. "Trust me. I am the best person you can find to negotiate for you."

His entreaties didn't work. The state prosecutors could not imagine Neeman ardently representing their interests in talks with the Finance Ministry. Deep in their hearts they believe that he hasn't forgotten that it was the prosecutors who indicted him in the early days of the first Netanyahu government, in 1996, forcing him to resign as justice minister (he was acquitted and later returned to the government ).

At one point during the current strike, prosecutors say, Weinstein asked the prime minister to do something. Netanyahu spoke to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Ministry Director General Eyal Gabbai, and ordered them to come up with a solution. Neeman heard that Steinitz and Gabbai were slated to start talks with the prosecutors, called Netanyahu, and threatened to quit if they "went over his head." Netanyahu divorced himself from the whole matter, claim the striking prosecutors - and the PMO chose not to respond. Officials close to the justice minister deny that he threatened to resign.

The prosecutors don't understand why the Finance Ministry conducts negotiations with every striking sector - teachers, local council workers, medical professionals, ports and airport workers - whereas they are told to end their strike as a precondition for negotiations.

They don't understand why the government minister responsible for them is heading the phalanx of officials telling them to end their strike. They don't know what sort of influence Neeman exerts on the prime minister. He is not affiliated with a political party; he is a non-partisan appointment. He came from the outside, and thus he can return to the private sector without anything happening to the coalition.

Neeman's acquaintances know he says things like "I don't have to be here - I have somewhere to return to." The fact is that he is still in the government. True, he doesn't love strikes. He comes from a different discipline. There is no culture of strikes in his prestigious law firm. About 10 days ago, the PMO retained a private law office to represent it in Jerusalem's Labor Court and handle its request for an injunction against one official in the State Prosecutor's Office. The court granted the request and ordered prosecutor Haim Vismonski to return to work, as the legal official responsible for research for the Terkel committee, which is investigating the Gaza flotilla incident. So far, this is the only instance in which the PMO has intervened in the strike. Why? Because Terkel requested it, and nobody says no to him.

Religion vs. state

A few minutes after the Knesset passed the army conversion bill in its preliminary reading, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman staged an impromptu press conference. He lavished praise but also brandied a stick. This stick, bearing the words "religion and state," could break the coalition's foundation. In the absence of peace negotiations (thank heavens, there is no danger of peace ), religious matters are the time bomb threatening Netanyahu's coalition from the right.

From the left, the peace stalemate and efforts to oust Ehud Barak from the Labor Party could threaten the coalition. Next year apparently will be Netanyahu's decisive year, but he is not the one who will be making decisions. He will be pulled along. On Wednesday, the premier voted in favor of the proposed bill which would make it easier for Israel Defense Forces soldiers to convert. He did so gnashing his teeth. Netanyahu and his party were not perceived as part of the campaign to help these immigrant soldiers, but he grasped the importance of this. at the last moment he summoned some soldiers who are undergoing conversion for a photograph in his office, along with warm words and praise.

Netanyahu managed to end the week without incurring real damage due to his decision not to impose coalition discipline on the conversion bill vote. Next week, the government will consider a bill allowing ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to receive government subsidies for another three years, in contravention of a High Court ruling. Also in the pipeline is a proposal for a general conversion bill; Lieberman knows that such legislation will help his party win a few more Knesset seats.

Eli Yishai is threatening that Shas will quit the government if the conversion law reaches the Knesset for first and second readings. Really? With Aryeh Deri waiting around the corner, will Yishai really precipitate elections?

Shas' calculations notwithstanding, many signs point to considerable coalition infighting in 2011. There will be threats and challenges on a number of fronts: religion and state issues, from the right and from the left, and other factors that could upset coalition stability. Will things follow Silvan Shalom's mantra: "In the first year, the government is solid as a cement block, during the second year it fractures, and in the third year it collapses"?