The missing link
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 29, 2001
As faithful readers of Ha’Aretz know, no subject causes the paper’s blood to boil faster than Aryeh Deri and Shas. So it was no surprise that Ha’aretz took a dim view of the Knesset’s recent passage of the amended "Beilin law,’’ which will make it possible for Aryeh Deri to be paroled after serving half his term.
For the sake of clarity, let’s start with a little chronology and nomenclature. In the final days of the Barak government, the Knesset passed the so-called "Deri Law,’’ which lowered the time served before being eligible for parole, for certain classes of prisoners, from two-thirds of the sentence to one-half. Immediately thereafter, then Justice Minister Yossi Beilin introduced a bill to annul the "Deri Law.’’ That law was recently passed by the Knesset, with one very crucial amendment: It would not apply to those already in jail at the time of the passage of the Deri Law, and who might have benefitted from the original Deri Law, including Deri himself.
Ha’aretz columnist Uzi Benziman, in his June 17 column entitled "The Deri Taint,’’ rightly called attention to a certain foul odor caused by the passage of the amended law. He pointed out that Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit had been an active supporter of the original Beilin Law, under which Aryeh Deri would not have been eligible for early parole, and now suddenly he had become the moving force behind the Law in its amended form.
Benziman hinted broadly to an unseemly conspiracy: "[O]ne wonders if there was a connection between the choice of Sheetrit for the Justice Ministry and Shas’s demands to cut their leader’s sentence.’’
He is right that something smells fishy here. But as any reader of Agatha Christie could tell him, there is one element missing from his scenario: motive. There is no evidence that Shas supported Sheetrit for Justice Minister. Thus the motive for Sheetrit’s sudden reversal remains undetermined.
To supply the missing motive we must widen our lens a bit, expand the cast of players, and go back a month. When we do, the two-way deal becomes a three-way deal.
On May 8, the Knesset Law Committee held a highly unusual session. That day Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit presented to the Law Committee for its immediate approval a bill to increase the jurisdictional amounts for suits that can be heard by the Shalom Courts. Though the bill appeared innocuous enough, it is in fact one of the elements in the Orr proposals for reform of the Israeli judicial system.
The intended purpose of the Orr reforms, taken as a whole, is to free the Supreme Court from the tiresome business of handling appeals from lower courts, and to allow the Court to focus instead on grand policy issues in the form of suits against the executive branch.
Chief Justice Aharon Barak has lobbied long and hard for the Orr reforms. Were the reforms passed, Barak would have one more argument against his worst nightmare, a constitutional court on which he does not sit and whose justices he would not appoint. He could argue that Israel already has a constitutional court, and he is it.
That explains why Justices Barak and Orr were both present during the Law Committee deliberations. Absent, however, were the numerous academic critics of the Orr reforms. None, it seems, were invited.
Justice Minister Sheetrit and Committee Chairman Ophir Pines pushed for a quick vote on the bill, despite the protests of a number of MKs, including Anat Maor of Meretz and Yossi Katz of Labor, that they were being asked to vote without having had time to study the issue or to review the material presented by Sheetrit. The deputy head of the Bar Association, Shai Segal, and Yaron Festinger, another leader of the Bar, warned the MKs that the issue at stake was crucial and they were being railroaded.
Pines and Sheetrit nevertheless insisted on an immediate vote. Before that vote was taken, however, Pines granted the request of the Shas representatives for a half hour delay. Sheetrit and Shas representatives then repaired to a separate room. When they emerged, the Shas representatives voted for the proposed bill, despite Shas’ longtime record of opposition to the Orr reforms. Shas MK Yitzchak Saban later told Mekor Rishon that Sheetrit informed Shas that he had changed his position on the Beilin Law and would now support the Shas-backed amendment against its retroactive application to Deri.
Sheetrit explained to the Shas MKs that as a new minister he was eager for a concrete achievement. He might have added that by presenting Chief Justice Barak with the lovely present of a portion of the Orr reforms, he could expect handsome concessions from Barak when the two meet to decide on appointments to the Supreme Court. Voila, the missing motive.
One more curiosity, Barak remained in the room during the entire vote, even after the other guests had left, exerting unwanted pressure on the MKs. Marina Solodkin of Israel B’Aliya complained, "I felt there was a great deal of pressure because he came to the hearings. There was an air of tension. . . . I come from Russia and I know these games.’’
Though the chief justice presents himself as the great defender of the "professional, apolitical judiciary,’’ he logs as many hours in the Knesset as any lobbyist on behalf of his pet proposals and can run rings around any MK as a political horsetrader.
Summarizing the entire course of events, Maariv’s Ben-Dror Yemini pointed out an exact parallel to the allegations in the Bar-On affair. Here the benefit to Deri was clear, and not just alleged. In place of Shas’ legislative support for the Hebron withdrawal, here was its support for a portion of the Orr reforms. Instead of then Prime Minister Netanyahu benefitting from Shas’ support, in this case it is Chief Justice Barak and Justice Minister Sheetrit.
Yemini predicted, however, that, unlike the Bar-On affair, the press would not touch this story because it touches too closely on the chief justice, who can count on the media’s "collective silence.’’
Benziman proved him right.
Related Topics: Israeli Supreme Court
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