JERUSALEM, May 15 (JTA) — A Tel Aviv court has acquitted former Israeli Justice Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman of charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Thursday’s court decision could pave the way for Ne’eman to return to that post. At the same time, it give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a face-saving way to remove his current justice minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, who has been dogged by allegations of influence peddling in the ill-fated appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general. Ne’eman stepped down in August, just two months after being appointed justice minister, when then-Attorney General Michael Ben- Yair launched a criminal investigation into allegations that he had obstructed court proceedings relating to the ongoing trial of Shas Knesset member Aryeh Deri. Deri, a former interior minister in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, resigned from his Cabinet post in 1993, after being indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of public trust. Authorities last month recommended that Deri be indicted on separate charges relating to the Bar-On affair. Netanyahu appointed Tzachi Hanegbi to replace Ne’eman in September, saying at the time that he hoped the appointment would be short-term. Though state prosecutors last month decided not to indict Hanegbi for involvement in the Bar-On affair, they found grave improprieties in his handling of the appointment, prompting opposition and coalition pressure to oust him. While Netanyahu welcomed Ne’eman’s acquittal, it was not immediately clear whether he planned to move to reinstate him. Netanyahu met with Ne’eman briefly on Thursday and said he would hold consultations with all relevant officials before deciding what to do. The acquittal was also welcomed by Hanegbi, though he refused to say whether he planned to step aside to let his predecessor take up the post again. Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein also approved the court’s decision, but he rejected criticism of the state prosecutor’s office for launching the investigation. Officials at the state prosecutor’s office said it was too early to say whether they would appeal the ruling. In Thursday’s decision, the judges at the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court cleared Ne’eman of all wrongdoing. They said that inaccurate information he had conveyed in a court affidavit related to the Deri case was the result of human error. Cheers and clapping greeted the judges’ decision that Ne’eman had been guilty of no criminal intent. Reacting to the decision, Ne’eman thanked “the Almighty for bringing justice to light.” Asked what his plans were for the future, he said he would “wait and see.” Officials from across the political spectrum welcomed the acquittal. One note of dissent was voiced by Meretz leader Yossi Sarid. Pointing to Ne’eman’s attack on officials in the Justice Ministry following the decision to launch a criminal investigation against him, Sarid said Ne’eman should not be allowed to resume his former responsibilities.
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