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Special JTA Analysis Behind the Justice Minister’s Resignation

The resignation of Justice Minister Yaacov Shimshon Shapiro is one of the rare cases in Israel in which a Cabinet member resigns as a consequence of mistakes he has made in carrying out his duties.

Under Israel’s proportional representation system, lists of candidates are submitted for election rather than individuals. The party secretariates or inner circles of the coalition parties then decide who will make up the Cabinet. The Prime Minister has little choice and the candidate himself is often not asked. Usually the secretariates try to send candidates representing the forces within their party.

The ministers thus selected feel they have been sent by a certain section of opinion and take care of its interests. To resign they seem to feel would be disloyal to the special group they represent. Thus, for example, Agriculture Minister Chaim Gvati is taken to represent the kibbutz movement. Police Minister Shlomo Hillel represents the Oriental community. All minister of justice so far have been lawyers. In other parties besides Labor there are also such balances and the three NRP ministers, for example, are emissaries of the major power blocs within it.

There is only one instance in the history of Israel’s governments in which a minister resigned as a result of a mistake he had made in carrying out his duties. This was Pinhas Lavon who when Defense Minister in 1954 was responsible for what was later described as "a grave mishap" An order to Israeli saboteurs to set fire to American installations in Egypt to mar relations between Egypt and the US. Other resignations occurred for political reasons usually of ministers not satisfied with the leeway given them in running their ministries.

Shapiro’s downfall seems to have been brought about by the Netivei Neft affair. At first, he declared that the case was not one for a State commission of inquiry to handle. Public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of an official inquiry into complaints over the administration of this Government-owned oil producing firm. However, Shapiro preferred at the first to nominate individual investigators–Yaacov Arnon the former Director of the Finance Ministry and Moshe Benzeev a former attorney general. Contrary to the latter’s recommendation, Shapiro did not hand over to the police allegations of theft and fraud. He eventually bowed to public opinion which demanded a commission of inquiry. However, his earlier opposition to this was well remembered.

The commission itself proved an albatross around his neck. The majority recommendations raised an outcry in the country. In effect, it was the minority report which won the day when the Netivei Neft director Mordechai Friedman, resigned voluntarily. Shapiro’s Director General, Zvi Terlo, advised the commission what fees to pay to the lawyers. Terlo failed to recommend a ceiling sum. Computing on the basis of his recommendations, the commission arrived at $100,000. Another public outcry followed, this time directed at the Ministry of Justice as well as the commission’s members.

In the Knesset last week Shapiro publicly admitted that he had made a mistake in not laying down a maximum figure. However, he opposed retroactive legislation and Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir came to an arrangement with the lawyers under which they waived the major part of their fees. The retroactive legislation was recommended by his own faction in the Knesset, the Labor Alignment. Shapiro’s said that this clashed with his concept of the rule of law and that he would resign if such legislation was indeed approved. He won the day. But apparently he must have realized the mood of public opinion and decided to resign.

Yaacov Shimshon Shapiro is one of the last remaining members of the Mapai old guard still in office. He was born in 1902. A Knesset member in the early 1950s, he was forced to resign when he suddenly became wealthy and was considered unfit to represent a worker’s party. This occurred when an oil company for which Shapiro did legal work suddenly struck oil. The shares with which he had been paid for his services soared in value overnight and he became a millionaire. Shapiro was coopted to the Cabinet in 1966 at the invitation of the late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Until the Netivei Neft affair broke he had been considered one of the most influential Cabinet ministers and a member of the inner circle with which Premier Golda Meir usually confers on important issues before bringing them to the Cabinet plenum.

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