Tangled Webs of Deception

After a conviction of perjury, Tzachi Hanegbi will never be prime minister. But if his crime is deemed as not involving moral turpitude, he could make a big return to politics

The December 10, 2002, protocol of the Central Elections Committee contains Tzachi Hanegbi's perjured testimony before then-Supreme Court justice Mishael Cheshin. Attorney Barak Calev, from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, asked Hanegbi: "Did the list of political appointees that was published in the Likud newsletter come from your office?" Hanegbi: "There are many inaccuracies in the list and many ridiculous things. If it were someone from the office, he would not have put things that don't exist."

Hanegbi. Trying to convince the court.
Michal Petel

Afterward, it was learned that Hanegbi had been involved in drawing up the list, in order to impress the members of the Likud central committee on the eve of the party's primary, which had taken place on December 8. They were duly impressed: Hanegbi, then-minister of the environment, made an excellent showing.

Two days later, he found himself in a battle with attorney Eliad Shraga, the founder of the Movement for Quality Government, who hauled him before the elections committee, in the wake of the publication of the list of appointments he made as minister.

Hanegbi was tired and irritable when he testified. Attorney Calev demanded the retraction of the information published in the Likud newsletter. Hanegbi was represented by attorney Eitan Haberman, at the time the party's legal counsel. Haberman claimed the Likud had nothing to do with the item in the publication, but Calev insisted on questioning the minister. Cheshin gave his approval. Hanegbi became even angrier. In the exchange with Calev, he made the remarks that this past Tuesday - more than seven years later - may cause the ceiling to collapse on him.

How ironic: Hanegbi emerged unscathed from the major accusations against him in court, but because of this rather superfluous testimony, he is liable to find himself forced to bid farewell to politics for good, if the court finds that his crime of perjury involved moral turpitude.

Hanegbi has a checkered past: from brandishing chains as a student, to entrenching himself atop the monument in Yamit, in northern Sinai, to protest Israel's evacuation of the town, to speaking falsely in one affair and almost being brought to trial in another. Until his early 40s, he was something of an inveterate offender. Since then, however, he has undergone a change for the better.

Does what's known as "the public interest" necessitate Hanegbi's permanent removal from politics? It's not certain. Can he, after being convicted of perjury, ever serve as prime minister? Obviously not.

Various commentators, including some writing in these pages, suggested that Hanegbi is waiting for the end of his legal saga in order to launch various initiatives. That is not accurate, because even in the critical periods of his four-year trial, before the last election, he and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, for example, spearheaded the ouster of Ehud Olmert as head of Kadima and the holding of that party's primary. He headed Tzipi Livni's campaign in the primary and was co-chairman of Kadima's election campaign, together with Dalia Itzik. After the February 2009 election, he and Likud's Gideon Sa'ar mediated between Benjamin Netanyahu and Livni in an effort to bring about the establishment of a unity government.

Hanegbi will try to persuade the court that his perjury was not calculated and did not disrupt the course of justice. And in any event, he will argue, more than seven years have gone by, during four of which he was barred from serving as a cabinet minister because of a prima facie offense, of which he was this week acquitted.

There are no few lawyers among the members of the Knesset. Their view is that perjury by a minister can end only with a declaration of moral turpitude. On the other hand, an indecent assault on a female soldier by a cabinet minister is also an offense that cries out in that direction. So, miracles can still happen.

'Fighting coalition'

Less than 48 hours after returning from the United States, Netanyahu entered the security cabinet conference room, in which the Likud ministers meet every Sunday morning. He was ready to get down to business, but also impatient with the party's ministers.

As he does every week, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman presented problematic legislative proposals, bills that have been sponsored by both members of Likud and the coalition parties. This time he mentioned the proposal to cap the salary of senior executives, submitted by MKs Haim Katz (Likud ) and Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ); a bill to impose fines and punishments on individuals and groups involved in promoting boycotts and sanctions against Israel, submitted by MK Zeev Elkin, the chairman of both the Likud faction and the coalition; and legislation to bring to Israel the remaining Falash Mura from Ethiopia, proposed by MK Avraham Michaeli (Shas ).

Waiting for Netanyahu in the pipeline were two bills with even greater potential volatility, however: a referendum bill, which was approved on Wednesday by the House Committee and which, if it passes, will make Israel look as if it is heaping obstacles on the road to peace with Syria; and a conversion bill, which is generating high tension in relations with American Jewry. The first proposal was submitted by Yariv Levin (Likud ); the second by David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ).

"Are we a party that wants to lead the country, or not?!" Netanyahu shouted at his ministers. "Enough with this populism!"

A few of the ministers tried to voice a different opinion about one proposal or another, but Netanyahu demanded unequivocally that they remove the bills from the agenda in the ministerial legislative committee, scheduled to meet later that day.

"But until now we did everything you wanted," grumbled Moshe Kahlon, communucations minister.

Netanyahu was furious.

"Haven't we done everything the prime minister wanted?" Kahlon asked the ministers, rhetorically. They nodded.

"When he's strong, he forgets that he might yet be weak," one minister mumbled, too low for Netanyahu to hear, although others did.

On the eve of the Knesset's upcoming summer recess, all the troubles that confront Netanyahu in that body are the handiwork of the coalition. If he's happy - and he is ecstatic - at the advent of the break, it's not because he will not have to see opposition leaders such as Tzipi Livni, Dalia Itzik, Hanegbi or Roni Bar-On for the next two and a half months. It's because he will be spared the mental anguish entailed in the weekly encounter with his own MKs and their legislative initiatives. Two weeks ago, it was legislation sponsored by MK Carmel Shama to give the Knesset the power to decide on the resumption of construction in the territories. And MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud ) has just submitted a bill, co-sponsored by MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima ), to oblige ultra-Orthodox schools to teach the core subjects (English, mathematics, etc. ). If that bill passes, it could touch off a true coalition crisis. Not to mention the troubles that MK Miri Regev is causing him on social issues, plus those caused by MK Danny Danon on other issues.

Of the nine Likud MKs who are neither ministers, deputy ministers nor the Knesset Speaker, only two do not regularly embitter Netanyahu's life: Ofir Akunis and Zion Fanian. Now all we have to do is figure out who Zion Fanian is.

The traditional term "fighting opposition" has given way to "fighting coalition." Fighting Netanyahu, that is. Coalition chairman Elkin, who is suspected by the Prime Minister's Bureau of conducting an independent agenda, divorced from Netanyahu's agenda, likes to boast that since the start of the 18th Knesset, the coalition has crushed and defeated all the opposition initiatives. That's true. The question is whether the time hasn't come for the coalition to defeat itself, too.

Honey traps

On Wednesday afternoon, the elevator in one of the office towers at the end of Ha'arba'ah Street in Tel Aviv carried Tzipi Livni straight to the office of businessman Ehud Olmert. They meet every few months to discuss developments. Livni wanted to talk to Olmert about a few urgent security-political issues.

From there, Livni went on to a more public though no less intriguing meeting - with Aryeh Deri, the former Shas chairman. They met within the framework of an event held on the ultra-Orthodox campus of Ono Academic College, to talk about the relations between the secular and Haredi communities. The press reported agreement between the two on almost every subject. Deri even went as far as to propose the elimination of the Haredi parties and the introduction of regional elections, as well as the direct election of the prime minister.

In the past year, ahead of his return to politics (from which he was barred for seven years, as a convicted felon ), Deri has been presenting an enlightened, sane image, which is causing many left-wingers, certainly many centrist voters, to long to see him back in the government. His political dalliance with Livni did not start this week. She was invited to a joyous family event of his a few months ago. However, the connection between them, mediated by their mutual friend Haim Ramon, began earlier and has been maintained steadily. The mutual dream of Livni and Ramon is for Deri to run as head of either Shas or as head of an independent party, and afterward to join forces with Livni and thus deliver into her hands the keys to the Prime Minister's Bureau.

But it's very possible that Deri is using Livni, not least to get legitimization from the center-left camp and from the media, for his own projected comeback. His future voters will in any event come from the right, the Haredim and the Orthodox. They will not look kindly on his joining a Kadima-Labor-Meretz government, one supported from the outside, no less, by the Arab parties.

When it comes to politics, Livni hasn't yet learned what Deri has long since forgotten. Just a year and a half ago, she underwent a similar process involving Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu. After the elections, he conducted "coalition negotiations" with her. He asked for, and received, a five-point document showing that Livni accepted most of his demands. Afterward, he admitted that he never intended to establish a coalition with her and that the whole negotiation he conducted, with the mediation of Ramon (who then also believed that it would be possible to hitch Lieberman to the Kadima cart ), was intended only to received legitimization from the center-left circles in the form of a kashrut certificate from Kadima.

Lieberman and Deri are friends. Livni, even if she lives to be 120, will never be able to execute the maneuvers the two pulled off in the past two decades. Honey traps are the most painful of all.