Justice Minister Failed to Disclose Ties to Appointees

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman appointed two close associates to state positions this month, but failed to disclose his ties with them when he proposed the appointments.

Yaacov Shimoni, tasked with finding a new Rabbinical Courts head.

One, Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, was named chairman of the search committee tasked with finding a new director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration. The other, retired judge Yaacov Shimoni, is a member of that committee.

The director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration is a very powerful position. Not only does that person control the rabbinical courts' day-to-day operations, he also recommends candidates to fill every vacancy on these courts.

The new director is expected to be tasked with leading various reforms within the rabbinical courts, which has made the post even more sought after by the various Orthodox movements - Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist.

The make-up of the search committee is important because, according to both Arussi and a source involved in the appointment process, its recommendation is likely to be decisive in determining who gets the job. Neeman himself led the move to oust the current director, Eli Ben Dahan, on the grounds that he has already held the post for 20 years.

This is the second time Neeman has come under fire for nondisclosure of his personal ties with appointees. Last November, Haaretz revealed that he often went on ski trips to Europe with Prof. Yedidya Stern, one of four finalists for the then-vacant post of attorney general, but had neglected to revealed his ties with Stern to the search committee tasked with recommending the best candidate.

Stern withdrew his candidacy in the wake of that report.

Ratzon yesterday confirmed to Haaretz that he and Neeman have been "close friends" for about 30 years - ever since he took a class taught by Neeman at Bar-Ilan University law school.

Arussi recently sprung to Neeman's defense when the latter was quoted in the media as telling a rabbinical conference that Arussi had planned that "step by step, we'll instill the laws of the Torah in Israel's citizens and turn halakha into the state's binding law." Arussi later insisted that Neeman was not talking about criminal cases, but only civil suits.

Shimoni, who was also a student of Neeman's at Bar-Ilan, subsequently clerked for Neeman's law firm and later worked there for years as a paid attorney specializing in arbitration cases. Recently, he opened his own office in the same building where Herzog, Fox & Neeman has its offices - Tel Aviv's Asia House.

"It worked out that we received several rooms from Herzog, Fox & Neeman," Shimoni's secretary told Haaretz. "We took a few rooms and closed them off... We're an independent firm within the offices of Herzog, Fox & Neeman."

Shimoni, who is currently overseas, confirmed that he has known Neeman since taking his class in 1975 and later worked for a time at his law firm. But he said the arbitrations he conducted out of the firm's offices were his own private business, which had no connection to the firm. Today, he added, "I have a separate unit" in the firm's offices.

Neeman's bureau said the minister was not obligated to set up a search committee, but did so voluntarily. It added that the ministry's legal advisor was consulted on the move and that the panel's members - jointly appointed by Neeman and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who heads the rabbinical courts - are "professionally suitable and knowledgeable about the field."