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President`s trial shows emboldened Israeli courts

Last Updated: Friday, December 31, 2010 - 22:34

Jerusalem: The conviction of a former president on rape charges this week marks the crest of a trend that has seen Israel`s legal system growing more aggressive in targeting a political culture that has long been rather freewheeling, if not outright lax, about the rules.

Israeli prosecutors, judges and police investigators become increasingly willing to take on the most powerful people in the country.

In recent years, among other cases, prosecutors have won convictions of a finance minister for embezzlement, a justice minister for sexual harassment and a former labor minister for corruption. A former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign to face corruption charges. His trial is still in court.

At the same time, justices of the country`s Supreme Court have become more activist in intervening in actions of the government and the military. The court, for example, ordered changes in the route of Israel`s separation barrier in the West Bank and ruled that the army`s tactic of using human shields was illegal.

On rare occasions, the court has shown itself willing to strike down laws passed by parliament, ruling in 2009 that a law allowing privately run prisons had to be revoked.

The more assertive stance in part comes because Israel`s aggressive media has created more transparency, forcing the legal system to step in to take action, said Emanuel Gross, a law professor at Haifa University.

"In recent years we have seen more and more flaws in the other systems of the state, like parliament and the government, and this has justified an assertive and belligerent answer from state prosecutors and the courts," he said, calling the Katsav conviction a "watershed moment" in this effort, Gross said.

On Thursday, a Tel Aviv court ruled that Katsav twice raped a woman who worked for him when he served as tourism minister, harassed others while president and obstructed justice. The ruling was scathing, deeming the ex-president to be "manipulative" and his testimony riddled with lies.

Katsav stepped down in 2008 over the charges. The conviction drew a near-unanimous chorus of approval Friday from Israeli commentators.

"Once again it has been proven that, despite its many faults and flaws, the legal system is what keeps the State of Israel from descending into an abyss of immorality," columnist Ari Shavit wrote Friday in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

One of the few dissenting voices was Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the daily Maariv, who accused the judges of caving into hostile media coverage of Katsav and partly acting on prejudice against Jews of Middle Eastern origin.

Katsav was born in Iran and grew up in a poor Israeli town, becoming a young mayor and a political success story before his spectacular fall from grace. Many critics in Israel see the legal system as representing a secular elite dominated by Israelis of European origin and liberal views.

"The contempt and loathing were already there," Yemini wrote. "Katsav is not one of our own. Katsav is the other, the stranger who occupied a role he had no business taking."

Most pundits disagreed.

Katsav`s behavior "was that of a man confident he is above the law," columnist Yair Lapid wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. "Yesterday we were given a reminder that there is no such thing."

Israel`s legal system intervened in government actions as far back as the 1950s, when the Supreme Court struck down a government decision to close a communist newspaper it deemed a security threat. Citing freedom of speech, the court ruled that the paper must stay open.

Much later, the Supreme Court became a watchdog of Israel`s actions in the territories it occupied in 1967, allowing Palestinians — who are not Israeli citizens — to appeal directly to the court in human rights cases.

Prosecutors have shown rumblings of going after top politicians in the past — current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was investigated on corruption suspicions during a previous, 1996-1999 term in office, and Olmert`s predecessor Ariel Sharon also came under questioning for financial wrongdoing. But neither case stuck.

The Olmert trial and Katsav conviction, however, suggest the courts are pushing harder.

It is not Israeli politicians who have changed, but the people who police them, said legal expert Moshe Negbi. "There has always been corruption. The question is how the corruption is dealt with."

Bureau Report

First Published: Friday, December 31, 2010 - 22:34

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