Analysis from Israel

Originally published on December 30, 1996.

The Supreme Court yesterday upheld the acquittal of former northern district police chief Cmdr. Ya’acov Ganot, on charges of bribe-taking, fraud, breach of trust and abusing his position.

Ganot was indicted in the Nazareth District Court for having allegedly taken bribes from a local contractor, Subhi Tanos. According to the indictment, Tanos gave Ganot several favors over the years, such as painting his house for a fraction of the normal cost and throwing an expensive party in honor of his appointment as district police chief.

In exchange, the indictment said, Ganot persuaded a subordinate not to run for a position on Nazareth’s Greek Orthodox executive committee, thereby leaving the field clear for Tanos’s brother, and interfered in an investigation against Tanos by preventing his arrest and later getting the file against him closed.

The district court ruled that all these favors were of the type which is normal between friends, and therefore there was no criminal intent involved. The state then appealed this ruling.

Justices Eliezer Goldberg, Ya’acov Kedmi and Yitzhak Zamir agreed with the state that the two men’s friendship was not a disinterested relationship: Tanos wanted Ganot’s services, and Ganot did not hesitate to supply them. Thus the district court’s first reason could not stand up, they said.

However, they continued, the lower court also said there was insufficient evidence to prove that Tanos actually did Ganot any financial favors, and this was enough to justify an acquittal. The state also appealed Ganot’s acquittal on charges of abusing his position by making a subordinate do personal work for his family, such as chauffeuring his wife and watching his children. The lower court had said this crime only refers to abuse of one’s position vis-a-vis the public, rather than vis-a-vis a subordinate.

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

Read more