The first case to go to trial in a string of high-profile government scandals here was thrown into an uproar last week when the prosecution admitted it withheld evidence that could damage its own case.
Former Justice Minister Haim Ramon went on trial last week on charges of forcibly kissing a female soldier. Most observers assumed that it was another in a string of cases involving men in positions of power forcing themselves on women who they believed would not complain. Similar charges have hurt other politicians, from disgraced ex-defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai to embattled President Moshe Katsav. Some commentators have described the phenomenon as a clash between the macho culture of Israel’s founders and the newer ethics of a younger, Westernized society.
Last Thursday, however, the Ramon case took a potentially explosive turn. The prosecution, after twice denying that it secretly had recorded conversations relating to the investigation, admitted to the defense that it did indeed have tapes and transcripts from wiretaps placed on H., as the complaining soldier is known. Also taped were her commanding officer and the director of the Prime Minister’s Office. So far, only five taped conversations — out of more than 100 — have been handed over to the defense team.
The tapes contain what some observers call bombshells. In a conversation with her father, H. argued that she had “no choice” but to file a complaint against Ramon. That, she said, was the message she was given in no uncertain terms by her commanding officer, Gadi Shamni, a major general who is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s military secretary, and by Miri Golan, then head of the Israeli Police national fraud division.
In another tape, H. reportedly explained to a friend that Golan had told her Ramon “could not be permitted” to be in charge of appointing Israel’s judges.
Based on those tapes, Ramon’s legal team is claiming that the case is part of a conspiracy to remove Ramon from office. In court Monday, attorney Dan Scheinemann charged that the existence of the tapes was initially denied because they would have shown that H. was browbeaten by the police and by her commander into filing a complaint against Ramon.
Ramon is a longtime Labor Party strategist who defected to Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party last year, along with a small group of fellow Laborites. He was viewed with suspicion by the majority faction in Kadima, which had come from the Likud with Sharon. His appointment to the key post of justice minister was widely resented by the ex-Likud faction.
Ramon was also viewed with suspicion within the criminal justice system, in part because of his known opposition to judicial activism.
Shortly before he was indicted in August, Ramon was preparing to appoint a new chief justice to the Supreme Court and was expected to name a judge who did not support the court’s recent tradition of judicial activism. After Ramon resigned August 20 — to date, the only high-ranking official being investigated to do so — the new justice minister, Meir Sheetrit, named activist jurist Dorit Beinish chief justice.
Fred Lazin, chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University, said it was not impossible that Ramon was set up. “Everyone likes these conspiracy theories,” Lazin said. “I don’t know who was really out to get him, but I don’t think it came from the prosecutors. He had enemies in the Prime Minister’s Office who wouldn’t mind hurting him. He’s an outsider to Kadima.”
The prosecution dismissed the conspiracy theories. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz called the mishandling of the wiretapped conversations “innocent mistakes,” noting in a letter to Scheinemann, quoted in The Jerusalem Post, that the prosecution was the initiator of the process leading to the “discovery” of the tapes.
Prosecutors described the wiretaps as intended to determine whether friends of Ramon had attempted to obstruct the investigation by pressuring H. not to file a complaint. When the conversations failed to reveal such an attempt, the wiretaps were stopped and the obstruction file was closed.
Most experts were in agreement that whether or not the prosecution and the police had an ulterior motive in prosecuting Ramon, withholding the tapes was a “grave” error.
“It appears that there was really an improper act by the prosecution and police that was unacceptable,” said Yoram Peri, head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University.
Peri blamed the prosecution’s misconduct on Israel’s wartime culture of perpetual emergency. “When a country is dealing with a continued war against the Palestinians, it gets accustomed to doing things in a way that bypasses the law, bends democracy and generally does things that are unacceptable,” Peri said. “This case illustrates the decline of the normative system of public institutions.”
The State Attorney’s Office said it got permission from the Tel Aviv District Court to tap three phones. The taps were activated for two days in July, and then they were removed after failing to produce the expected evidence. Tel Aviv District Attorney Ruth David reportedly ordered the file closed since the suspicions had been proven unfounded.
The defense now argues that even the limited amount of material released so far is enough to prove that the police and prosecution were out to entrap Ramon. In the Monday court session, Scheinemann read from the transcript of a wiretapped phone conversation between H. and her father in which the father tried to persuade his daughter, who was about to leave on vacation abroad, not to file a police complaint against Ramon.
“[Ramon] is a strong and well-connected politician,” the father warned, according to Scheinemann.
“It’s out of my control,” H. answered. “They’ll go to him and I will already be abroad, and I won’t be able to defend myself. I don’t want this, but I understand I have no choice.”
Referring to Golan, the former fraud chief, H. said, “Dad, she’s a deputy commander, like she’s the one who knows the most. She got Naomi Blumenthal and Omri Sharon [two previously convicted politicians], and she told me, ‘You file a complaint now, and he will try to explain and after that there will be another 10 complaints against him.’ It’s not in my control.”
The trial is now taking place outside the courtroom. Israel’s two most respected newspapers, Yediot Aharonot and Ha’aretz, have staked out opposite positions, with Yediot largely reporting the defense’s views and Ha’aretz seeming to sympathize with the prosecutors.