Analysis from Israel
Policemen, prosecutors and judges ask for the public’s trust, but then squander it.

The verdict in Haim Ramon’s case has sparked a welcome debate on the proper boundary between illegal and merely inappropriate behavior. However, there has been far less debate on another troubling aspect of the case: behavior by our law enforcement agencies that gives them the semblance of a legal lynch mob.

The indictment itself was justifiable: Cabinet ministers should be deterred from sexually harassing employees. Yet the conduct of the case was unacceptable.

It began with the tactics used to persuade H. to file a police complaint against Ramon for forcibly kissing her: Police Dep.-Cmdr. Miri Golan, then head of the fraud squad, told H. that if she failed to do so, Ramon was liable to sue her for slander.

The twenty-something H. did not know that this was nonsense, and the threat, as she later told the media, scared her. But Golan, a senior police officer, assuredly did know it. In short, she deliberately bullied H. into complaining by threatening her with a ridiculously improbable lawsuit.

While the police obviously should try to persuade crime victims to complain, even the court – which was openly hostile to Ramon – thought that Golan’s intimidation tactics went too far. The lawsuit threat was “illegitimate,” wrote the judges, and it “would have been better had it not been used.”

In reality, however, this “illegitimate” behavior was rewarded: Golan added a high-profile conviction to her record, at the negligible price of a verbal slap on the wrist from the court.

THEN THERE were the police wiretaps of conversations by H., which were concealed from the defense until H. had already finished her court testimony. Indeed, they would never have been revealed had Ramon’s lawyers not been tipped off and queried the prosecution – and then, when the prosecutor lied in court and denied the wiretaps’ existence, pressed the issue via the media until the state owned up.

As the court accurately said, the state’s excuse, “that investigators believed the recordings were irrelevant,” was “astonishing… This was a case of real negligence by the prosecution.” The Justice Ministry has at least pledged to investigate this incident. But so far, the chances of anyone paying a price for it look slim.

Also problematic was the police’s decision to fly two investigators to Costa Rica to question H., rather than awaiting her return to Israel after her vacation. As Ramon correctly noted, such expensive zeal is hard to justify at a time when the police are claiming insufficient funds to deal with far graver crimes. This raises serious questions about the legal system’s priorities.

Then there were the incessant police and prosecution leaks to the media, which continued throughout the case. This has become so commonplace that it tends to be overlooked. Yet such leaks are essentially punishment without trial: They make the defendant’s life a living hell, and can irreversibly damage his reputation even if he is ultimately acquitted.

Moreover, they create the impression that the police and prosecution are interested less in the truth than in destroying their victim’s reputation, regardless of his guilt or innocence. After all, if they merely wanted to secure a conviction, media leaks would be unnecessary: It would suffice to present their evidence in court.

RAMON’S CASE, however, was exceptional even for leak-plagued Israel – because the leaks were augmented with on-the-record attacks by no less a personage than our top legal official, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. In an interview with Haaretz while the trial was taking place, Mazuz declared that he considered the charges so grave that even if Ramon were acquitted, he would oppose his return to the Justice Ministry. Mazuz then gave another interview to Yediot Aharonot – after the verdict was issued, but before the sentencing, meaning while the trial was still under way – in which he harshly criticized Ramon’s behavior during the investigation and trial.

These attacks were exacerbated by the court’s response: The verdict lambasted the media for “hitherto unknown” violations of the sub judice rules, but was silent about the legal officials who (along with the defense) supplied this material. It thus espoused a truly bizarre double standard: The police and prosecution, which are supposed to enforce the law, are free to discuss a matter that is still under consideration by a court by talking to the media, but the media may not relay this information to the public – which is their legitimate job.

Granted, the material itself was not always of genuine public interest. But the fact that legal officials were trying to besmirch a defendant through such leaks undoubtedly was.

Thus not only did the legal system not condemn such leaks, but our top legal official, Mazuz, enthusiastically joined in, while the courts shifted the blame to the media. That is hardly calculated to increase public trust in the law-enforcement system.

THE VERDICT was also problematic in another way. Both sides agreed that H. jokingly invited Ramon to accompany her to Costa Rica; was photographed, at her own request, draping herself all over him; and later even gave him her phone number. Since the two were almost complete strangers, this hardly adds up to an invitation to a French kiss. But to assert, as three judges unanimously did, that H. was “not flirtatious”? If that is not flirtation, what is? And this unnecessary whitewash gave an otherwise plausible verdict the taste of a legal lynching.

Nobody pays more lip service to the need for public trust in the legal system than policemen, prosecutors and judges. Scarcely a day passes without some legal official making sanctimonious pronouncements on the subject. Yet too much of the legal system appears to view such pronouncements as a mere tool for suppressing criticism, on the grounds that it “undermines public trust,” rather than as reflecting a genuine aspiration.

In truth, what undermines public faith in the legal system is not criticism, but the behavior that gives rise to this criticism, such as that displayed in the Ramon case. And until the legal system begins seriously combating such behavior, public distrust of the system will continue to grow.

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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.

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