Thursday, May 08, 2008

Olmert Investigation -- Find a better way

On Friday two high-ranking police officers interrogated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at his official Jerusalem residence. We would like to tell you more, but there is a court injunction barring publication of further details.

This newspaper has in the past called on Olmert to resign over his handling of the Second Lebanon War, and we have not stinted on our criticism of the premier over a range of issues. Today, however, we focus our concern on the way the police, Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz, State Attorney Moshe Lador and the legal establishment are conducting themselves.

The State of Israel is about to mark its 60th Independence Day (according to the Hebrew calendar), starting on Thursday and continuing through the May 15 weekend, when world leaders will be arriving to help us mark this extraordinary accomplishment. The decision to authorize the police to pursue a completely new investigation just now embarrasses not just the premier, but the entire nation. Could this probe really not have waited a few more weeks? Police have long been interrogating Olmert's former executive assistant, Shula Zaken, and were reportedly worried that the two might coordinate their testimony. Still, there's got to be a better way.

And if there wasn't a better way, and the timing was unavoidable, isn't it curious that a gag order is preventing this newspaper from fully reporting on the nature of the investigation and keeping Olmert from presenting his side of the story; and yet someone - presumably with police or prosecutor connections - is shamelessly and illegally leaking details to Channel 2 television news and the Yediot Aharonot tabloid?

Buffeted by a drawn-out - and to this day unresolved - investigation of a sitting president (now out of office), many Israelis are starting to lose faith in the effectiveness of the attorney-general and the police to efficiently address wrongdoing among politicians.

Granted, not all cases have ended in failure. MK Shlomo Benizri, for instance, was recently convicted of accepting bribes. But what of Tzahi Hanegbi, whose fraud trial has has been dragging on for months? And what about Ya'acov Edri? The police recommended his indictment for breach of trust in a blaze of publicity, but the case was ultimately, quietly, closed. Then there is Ruhama Avraham-Balila, the minister in charge of the 60th anniversary celebrations, who was questioned by police for taking a trip against the advice of the Knesset Ethics Committee. That case, too, is unresolved. So too are the charges against Yitzhak Ziv, under investigation for alleged sexual harassment.

And it seems like a decade since the police began investigating MK Avigdor Lieberman on charges such as conducting a private business while in the cabinet. There have been endless leaks, but no indictments, let alone a conviction.

WRONGDOING by top officials must be investigated and, as appropriate, prosecuted with all deliberate speed. When police, prosecutors and judges allow cases to meander along for months and years while the prospective defendants are tried in the media, the real loser is the political system's legitimacy. The result: a jaded and alienated public.

More than a year ago, Mazuz approved a criminal investigation into allegations that Olmert received special favors while purchasing his Cremieux Street home in Jerusalem - case pending. Mazuz is investigating Olmert for giving out patronage jobs while he was Industry, Trade and Labor minister - case pending. Mazuz is also probing whether Olmert, again as trade minister, did special favors for a company represented by his former law partner - case pending. And he is looking into whether, as finance minister, Olmert tried to do special favors for Bank Leumi - case pending.

Now, police are looking into an apparently completely new case, and somebody is leaking partial details. That the attorney-general says he is not asking the premier to step down and is promising an "expedited" investigation is small consolation.

Police questioned former prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu during their tenures - all cases have been closed.

Patently, no one should be above the law. But neither should anyone, not even an unpopular prime minister, be trampled by it.

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