The Housekeeper in the Tower

The attorney general should reopen the investigation of Ehud Barak's wife over suspicions that she employed a foreign worker who lacked a work permit.

The decision to close the investigation of Nili Priel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak's wife, over suspicions that she employed a foreign worker who lacked a work permit, evoked amazement even before yesterday.

Yesterday, however, Israel Radio's Carmela Menashe, who broke the initial story, broadcast an in-depth interview with the worker whose whereabouts had been unknown until Israel Radio's morning news program "Yoman Haboker."

The Justice Ministry didn't bother releasing a statement explaining in detail why the investigation was closed and how it is that investigators couldn't find the worker. The ministry sufficed instead with a letter containing six short clauses sent by Raz Nizri, the senior assistant to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, to the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel in response to questions from the organization.

Nor does a response yesterday to an inquiry by MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima ) dispel the uncertainty over the case.

The letter to the Forum for the Land of Israel states that the investigators failed to locate the worker, despite the fact that the Shin Bet security service provided them personal details, such as her last name, citizenship, passport number and birth date, following a Justice Ministry request. The attorney general decided not to ask the Shin Bet to find the woman and not to require the security guards who worked at the defense minister's home to submit an affidavit regarding her identity, because Weinstein did not think the matter was of sufficient importance to justify those steps.

The case should be reexamined. The fact that a housekeeper was employed in such a sensitive location without monitoring her comings and goings, as she claimed in the radio interview, arouses concern. Nor do we know whether her trustworthiness and background were checked out.

The laconic statement in the letter from the attorney general's assistant that there was no evidentiary basis to believe that the defense minister was involved in employing the worker is disturbing. Perhaps that was the case, but it is not possible to establish that contention without summoning the minister himself for questioning, which is even customary when it comes to ordinary couples if an investigation centers on one of the two of them.

It also should be asked why Ehud Barak didn't see himself duty-bound to look into whether the woman could legally work, in light of her "Filipino" appearance, as Priel described her. Many people of a lower status than the minister's would not think of hiring a foreign worker without being convinced that they were not violating the law.

The attorney general's decision to close the investigation is not convincing. According to the explanation provided by Weinstein's office, the statement provided by the minister's wife is a single piece of evidence which "does not provide a sufficient evidentiary basis to file an indictment."

Under Israeli law in general a defendant can be convicted of serious offenses based on the admission of the accused, if there is something in addition to support it. People who saw the worker at Barak's apartment at the Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv at various events, notably Shin Bet employees, who it can be reasonably assumed questioned her before she starting working there, could have provided the necessary evidence to convict Barak's wife. This is perhaps also true of Barak himself if under questioning it turns out Barak was involved in the matter.

The attorney general's assistant wrote that, absent information about the foreign worker, it was possible that she was employed with the status of someone who had been granted asylum in Israel or who was seeking asylum or who had temporary resident status, in which case employing her would not be a criminal offense. Nonetheless, in fairness, he added that no indication was found that any of these ground existed.

An imaginary possibility that could have been excluded by a Shin Bet document cannot provide immunity from prosecution in the course of which the accused can present whatever argument he or she wishes. In any event, the attorney general, who is clearly an expert on criminal law, should provide the public with a clear explanation as to his reasoning.

It is not appropriate to cast aspersions in Weinstein's direction to the effect that he has sought to provide cover for Barak, especially after he faced off against Barak in bitter battles over important issues, such as the term of office of the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and the authority of the Brik committee looking into the so-called Galant document affair.

Weinstein erred, in my opinion, in thinking the case of the foreign worker did not justify requiring the Shin Bet to find her and provide a statement regarding her identity. It is after all a case involving the possible employment of a worker in violation of the law at the home of a public figure who should set an example. Failure to pursue the investigation engenders concern over improper unequal enforcement of the law. It is a long road, however between a mistake in judgment and a cover-up.

In light of the recent disclosures, Weinstein would do well to order that the investigation be reopened. That would be consistent with efforts by the authorities to prevent the illegal employment of foreign workers. The existing policy does not allow the case of the housekeeper in the tower to be ignored.