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News Analysis: Netanyahu Signals Intention to Influence Views of Judiciary

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised the political community this week by signaling that he would appoint Tzachi Hanegbi to the senior Cabinet position of justice minister.

Hanegbi, now the health minister and one of the youngest men in the Cabinet, is a close ally of Netanyahu’s within the Likud Party.

His potential appointment to head the Justice Ministry is the latest in a series of events that reflect Netanyahu’s American-style management of government.

Appointing political allies to prominent positions will not only affect the makeup of the Cabinet, but may also affect the composition of the judiciary, the military and the civil service.

The top Justice Ministry post fell vacant last week, when Ya’acov Ne’eman reluctantly resigned after the attorney general instructed the police to investigate him for allegedly obstructing justice in a key case against an Orthodox political leader, Aryeh Deri of the Shas Party.

Ne’eman, who is Orthodox, publicly accused Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair and the senior echelons of the Justice Ministry of bias against the Orthodox community and of allowing political prejudices to affect their work.

His charges set off a political firestorm.

Hanegbi originally made his name as a young student firebrand at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the late 1970s.

He had several brushes with the law at the time, and he has sustained an image of irreverence toward the establishment since then.

Although Hanegbi subsequently became a lawyer, his experience and views are a far cry from the weighty figures who have filled this central Cabinet position in the past.

He has no record as a parliamentary champion of civil liberties — a quality that distinguishes two of his Cabinet colleagues, Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin and Finance Minister Dan Meridor, who was a past minister of justice.

On Sunday, Netanyahu appointed Hanegbi chairman of the Cabinet Legislation Committee, a post almost always held by the minister of justice.

He is expected to name Hanegbi to head the Justice Ministry this weekend.

By appointing Hanegbi, rather than the widely respected Meridor or Begin — and by supporting Ne’eman in his raucous feud with the state’s legal establishment — Netanyahu is sending out a powerful signal.

The premier intends to promote an interpretation of law that is shared by the right-religious coalition he heads and that diverges sharply from the positions espoused by the largely liberal Supreme Court bench and by the great bulk of Israel’s legal establishment.

For example, the Netanyahu government would like to see a judiciary that is less interventionist in decisions made by the Israel Defense Force and thus more sympathetic to security rather than civil rights concerns.

And his religious coalition partners would like to see a judiciary that leans toward protecting their interests.

To Americans, there would not be much surprise in the approach Netanyahu is taking.

In Washington, new administrations expect to bring their political and ideological persuasions to bear on shaping the country’s legal establishment – – up to and including the composition of the Supreme Court.

In Israel, however, where constitutional norms have largely rested until now on British patterns, the courts and the state prosecutors have been seen as impermeable to political change.

Israel’s Supreme Court, the district courts, the attorney general and the district attorneys have been seen as purely professional appointees who were not to be influenced — and certainly not to be criticized — by politicians.

Netanyahu, however, Israel’s first directly elected prime minister and the first prime minister who spent long and formative periods in the United States, sees things differently.

The far-reaching changes that he is proposing to introduce into Israel’s system of government also extend to the country’s legal and judicial system, where Netanyahu hopes to make his own appointments to the courts and the state prosecutor’s office.

The prime minister’s support for Ne’eman and his probable appointment of Hanegbi came the same week that the Netanyahu government announced its plan to appoint deputy directors general in all the government ministries.

Until now, the directors general were the only top officials regularly appointed to office by incoming administrations.

The move has provoked protests throughout the civil service.

Long-serving officials contend that their chances of promotion within their departments are significantly reduced by the appointment, every four or eight years, of a new deputy director general.

The commissioner of the civil service, Professor Yitzhak Galnoor, added his voice to those of the protesters, warning somberly that the professionalism of the civil service would be eroded by the government move.

It was perhaps not coincidental that the Netanyahu government also sought this week to name its own appointee to serve as the civil service commissioner.

The High Court of Justice, which ruled that the position should not be filled by political appointees, prevented Galnoor from being summarily dismissed.

The widespread naming of political appointees — a holdover from Netanyahu’s experiences in America — reflects his desire to control most aspects of the top echelons of government.

This desire has also spilled into the area of foreign affairs, where Netanyahu has made it clear that he wants to manage how negotiations with Israel’s Arab neighbors proceed.

He harbors a deep distrust of the Foreign Ministry staff, whom he believes will not implement the new approach to the peace process, and of his longtime political rival, Foreign Minister David Levy, whose aides have complained publicly that Levy is on the verge of resigning for being left out of foreign policy decisions.

Levy made a private visit to New York this week, and there is much speculation regarding what will happen between him and Netanyahu when he returns to Israel.

In the meantime, there was another incident touching on how foreign policy may be conducted under the Netanyahu government.

Earlier this month, barbs of distrust from a high-ranking Likud official were directed at what is perhaps Israel’s most venerated institution: the Israel Defense Force.

Uzi Landau, the chairman of the prestigious Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, launched an unprecedented attack on the professionalism of the IDF’s top echelons, questioning whether they were maintaining the apolitical stance generally expected of them.

Landau declared that the IDF’s generals were by and large “sold on” the previous Labor government’s peace policies and were therefore not to be trusted by the new government to carry out its policies.

Landau blamed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres, for involving the army brass in the various negotiations that led to the signing of the self-rule accords with the Palestinians.

Landau’s attack provoked a long and loud outcry in the media, both from “sources close to” the senior IDF officers and from leading members of the previous administration.

Labor and Meretz Knesset members urged Netanyahu to dismiss Landau from his powerful parliamentary post.

But Netanyahu — while duly voicing his own “complete confidence” in the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, and in his senior staff — nevertheless reiterated his own resolve to sharply reduce the army’s role in future negotiations.

He was thereby hinting that he did not entirely dissociate himself from all of Landau’s accusations.

There have so far been no individual firings in the army — nor in the legal establishment, nor in the senior ranks of the civil service.

But an atmosphere of uncertainty and concern hangs like a gray cloud over Israel’s military officers, government attorneys and civil service officials.

Many of them wait with trepidation for the cold gale of “Americanization” gusting through the central institutions of the state.

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