High-Stakes Drama in Israel Pits Top Cop Against Attorney General

By Chemi Shalev

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — It is a showdown worthy of a Hollywood script, where “The Sopranos” meets “Law and Order” deep inside “The West Wing.” It is a confrontation that is shaking Israel’s law-enforcement apparatus to the core and rocking its political establishment. It is depicted on both emotional sides as a fateful battle between good and evil for Israel’s future.

The high-stakes drama pits Israel’s top law-enforcement officer, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, against its most feared and respected cop, Commander Moshe Mizrahi, chief of investigations for the National Police, who heads up sensitive probes of politicians and others. The standoff between the two is splitting Israeli politicians, jurists and even newspapers right down the middle. Each side swears true allegiance to the Rule of Law.

The confrontation stems from a lengthy internal probe of Mizrahi by the attorney general, published recently in a scathing 78-page report. Rubinstein found that the investigator had been listening in on personal and political phone conversations conducted by suspect politicians and was keeping unauthorized transcripts locked away in his safe. Although Mizrahi had not committed any clear-cut, punishable offenses, Rubinstein decided that he had deviated from court orders, shown poor judgment and should be sacked.

Then all hell broke loose. In an unprecedented revolt, Rubinstein’s most senior lieutenants, led by State’s Attorney Edna Arbel, publicly challenged the attorney general’s findings as a “gross mistake.” In dissenting letters sent to Cabinet ministers and leaked to the press, Arbel and her colleagues pointedly reminded Rubinstein that he personally had authorized the very wiretaps that he was now condemning.

From there the storm spread to the political arena. Politicians on the left, led by outgoing Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, accused Rubinstein of trying to “undermine and subvert” the ongoing police investigations of Prime Minister Sharon in order to curry favor with politicians and burnish his chances of winning a seat on Israel’s Supreme Court. The timing of Rubinstein’s decision to oust Mizrahi, just days before Sharon was to be interrogated by the police, appeared to Rubinstein’s critics too close for comfort, or coincidence.

Ultimately, the controversy engulfed Israel’s media as well. One daily newspaper, Ma’ariv, launched an unprecedented public tirade on another, Ha’aretz. Ma’ariv — whose publisher, Ofer Nimrodi, was twice convicted in court as a result of investigations led by Mizrahi — ran a blistering, three-page condemnation of Ha’aretz, signed personally by Ma’ariv editor Amnon Dankner. Ha’aretz, a left-leaning broadsheet read by Israel’s elites, was accused of “covering up” Mizrahi’s sins and waging an ideological crusade on his behalf.

To his fans, Mizrahi is the Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson of Israeli law enforcement, who single-handedly faces down and captures crooks at the very top. Even if he sometimes bends the rules, admirers say, Mizrahi is the last bastion against a wave of corruption and cronyism threatening to drown whatever remains of ethical government. Rather than be castigated for his minor transgressions, wrote Ha’aretz columnist Amir Oren, he should be given the Israel Prize.

To his detractors, Mizrahi is an overzealous, politically motivated cop who will stop at nothing to convict, if not frame, dedicated and hard-working politicians — especially if they come from the wrong side, meaning the right side, of the political map. It is no coincidence, critics say, that the very Mizrahi now trying to build a case against Sharon was found in 1999 to be illegally eavesdropping on the private conversations of then-aspiring politician Avigdor Lieberman, now minister of transportation and leader of the right-wing Ihud Leumi party.

The Rubinstein report was thus seen as a vindication of persistent suspicions harbored on the right for years, against Mizrahi in particular and against the police and Justice Ministry in general. Far from a crusader against corruption, Mizrahi is seen by his critics as a kingpin in a powerful leftist cabal comprising the police, the press and the legal establishment.

Tensions between the right and the legal establishment have their origins in the ideological confrontations of the 1980s and 1990s, when judges and state attorneys were repeatedly portrayed as barriers to settlement expansion in the territories and to the employment of harsh measures against Palestinian rioters.

The tensions grew into stark enmity when the confrontations turned personal in the mid-1990s. First came the police investigation and ultimate conviction on bribery charges of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri, still considered by Shas loyalists to be an innocent martyr. Then came the mid-1990s investigation of the so-called Bar-On Affair, named for the man whose nomination as attorney general nearly got then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicted on suspicion that his pick would obligingly let Deri off the hook in exchange for political favors from Shas.

Finally, after leaving office, Netanyahu was subjected to a humiliating investigation for allegedly accepting bribes from a petty handyman and was once again let off the hook by Rubinstein. That last probe drove Netanyahu supporters by droves to join the growing coalition of settlers, ultra-Orthodox and die-hard right-wingers who viewed the entire law-enforcement apparatus as hostile and suspect. Buttressed by powerful tycoons also subjected to Mizrahi’s scrutiny, the dogged investigator faced a powerful and growing array of enemies.

It was his pursuit of Sharon that may have sealed Mizrahi’s fate, at least in the view of his fans. Under Mizrahi’s personal supervision, the police have been assembling evidence against Sharon in two separate corruption cases. In one, dubbed “the Greek Island Affair,” Sharon is alleged to have accepted bribes indirectly, through his son Gilad, in exchange for extending political and diplomatic favors to a real-estate developer and major Likud financier, David Appel. In a separate probe, known as “the Cyril Kern Affair,” Sharon is suspected of having accepted million-dollar payoffs from foreign millionaires, again through his sons, from Kern, a British businessman and longtime chum of Sharon. Police reportedly suspect that Kern may have been acting as a front man for the Austrian financier and gaming czar Martin Schlaff, who owns a stake in a casino in Jericho.

Polls show that most of the public, including half of those who voted Likud in the last election, believe Sharon is indeed guilty of misdeeds and that, if the charges are proven, he should step down. At the same time, in a clear sign of spreading confusion and eroding public trust in the legal establishment, a similar majority is convinced that the press, lawyers and police investigating Sharon are targeting him for purely political reasons, seeking to carry out an undemocratic “putsch” against an elected prime minister.

Rubinstein himself, a longtime civil servant who served as diplomatic negotiator for several Israeli prime ministers, personifies the growing public confusion. Since taking office almost seven years ago, Rubinstein has been viewed by right-wing critics as part and parcel of the “judicial elites” conspiring against right-wing politicians, while left-wing critics portray him as weak-kneed and kowtowing to the very same politicians. Now, two months before he is due to leave office, Rubinstein has broken out of his mold, on one hand taking a gutsy and controversial stand, but on the other targeting the cop most often seen as personifying the rule of law.

In a final irony, the man who will ultimately decide Mizrahi’s fate is none other than Internal Security Minister Tsahi Hanegbi, who was implicated, though not indicted, in the Bar-On affair and was subsequently investigated, though never charged, in unrelated corruption cases, all by Mizrahi’s people. Hanegbi’s appointment as minister was appealed to the Supreme Court last spring by opponents who said he could not oversee a police force that had twice investigated him. The justices approved his appointment, on the condition that he not use his post to punish his investigators. Hanegbi has promised to be fair when he decides Mizrahi’s case.

“Justice, justice ye shall pursue,” the biblical dictate, is the unofficial motto of Israeli law enforcement. But the Rubinstein-Mizrahi scandal has blurred the distinctions between pursuer and pursued. Zeal in pursuit of justice is no vice, claim Mizrahi’s supporters. Someone must guard the guards, Rubinstein’s advocates retort.

Each side views itself as the true guardian of Israel’s democratic soul. One way or the other, the outcome will prove that in divided Israel, even affairs of good and evil are all in the eyes of the beholder.

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