The Pardon on the Horizon

The person with the supreme and direct authority to appoint a new justice minister is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but, as with all the government faults, he has a senior partner: Amir Peretz.

The person with the supreme and direct authority to appoint a new justice minister is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but, as with all the government faults, he has a senior partner: Amir Peretz.

When the results of the Knesset elections were first publicized and the balance of power in the Olmert-Peretz government began to surface, there were those who told the Labor Party chairman that in a disagreement over the distribution of portfolios, he should insist on either the Justice or Public Security Ministry. Investigations had already started with that of the state comptroller, and Labor clearly couldn't give Olmert and Kadima ministries responsible for both the police and judiciary. Isaac Herzog, for instance, expressed this opinion, possibly since he himself wanted the justice portfolio.

Peretz listened, nodded and didn't do a thing. Olmert rushed to appoint Haim Ramon, a Kadima member, as justice minister. The prime minister also controls the public security portfolio. And if Attorney General Menachem Mazuz doesn't impose limits, once the Zeiler Committee submits its report on alleged police and prosecutorial misconduct, and summer approaches, Olmert will be able to influence the appointment of the next police commissioner, with the three-year term of incumbent police chief Moshe Karadi coming to a close.

Since Ramon's conviction for forcibly kissing a female soldier, there has been much conjecture regarding the identity of the new justice minister. The talk centered around the political elements and positions that appear to oppose those of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch - and, at least partly, of Mazuz, and were behind the idea of appointing those agreeable to Ramon, from Roni Bar-On to Daniel Friedmann. However, one angle - perhaps the most decisive one - has remained behind the scenes: pardons that will be granted to the elite, public figures and perhaps everyone, or nearly everyone, as a gift from the State of Israel to criminals among the citizenry during festivities marking the 60th year of independence on May 10, 2008. The general pardon will be mandated by law, requiring a majority in the current Knesset. Alternatively, individual pardons will require the signatures of two people: the justice minister and president.

Who will be a suitable candidate for receiving a pardon? Ramon, of course, and Moshe Katsav, who will no longer be president by the time the legal proceedings against him end. Then there's Omri Sharon and Tzachi Hanegbi, if he's convicted, and other notables of the political system. Of course, they are innocent until proven guilty, but for the sake of this exercise, we can consider the possibility that the investigations against these and other public figures, along with their associates, will be completed, there will be recommendations to indict, they will be tried and convicted, and their convictions will be upheld on appeal. Don't overlook the associates: If they know that they can ultimately expect to be pardoned, they won't have an incentive to give away their senior partners or serve as state's witnesses against them.

A major police-related and legal danger is hanging over the heads of Olmert and Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson. Olmert sounded ridiculous this week when he urged the investigators to investigate, as though he has standing in this matter, whether as someone trying to dissuade or pretending to encourage.

If Mazuz, the investigators and the prosecutors act faster, one or more of the cases involving Olmert could lead to his indictment. He will not be forced to resign then, in contrast to accepted behavior for a regular minister.

Sections 17-18 of the new version of the Basic Law on The Government give the prime minister the opportunity to maneuver and refuse to resign. The law states that it is first up to the attorney general to submit an indictment of the prime minister to the Jerusalem District Court. It is then up to a three-judge panel to determine whether the offense involves moral turpitude, if the prime minister is convicted. If both those conditions are met, and the prime minister resists resignation, the Knesset House Committee is to convene within 30 days and submit a recommendation regarding the premier's resignation to the Knesset plenum. If this does not happen, the matter is to be raised by the Knesset speaker. The prime minister gets an unlimited period to present arguments in his defense. Then the Knesset has the right to vote against ousting the prime minister, and only if the High Court of Justice upholds his conviction after hearing the appeal will his term of office come to an end.

This long process can be cut short with a pardon. Among the leading contenders for the presidency, Reuven Rivlin has his shortcomings, but a positive attitude toward Olmert is not one of them. By contrast, Shimon Peres helped initiate pardons for Shin Bet security service officials in the Bus 300 affair. Friedmann's opinion on the judicial system's attitude toward public figures like Ramon is already known. It is always possible to come up with political reasons as well - to free jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, for instance, - and divert attention by arguing over refusing to release Yigal Amir, who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Olmert is not avenging Ramon right now by appointing Daniel Friedmann as justice minister, although such conduct would not be out of character. In the midst of the troubles brought about by the investigations, one can assume that he is not seeking revenge, but an advance.