Protecting Israeli Civil Society After 68 Years
I published a book this past December called The Lieberman Case – The Indictment That Was Never Served, documenting how Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beyteinu party, an MK and twice Minister of Foreign Affairs, maintained questionable connections with multimillion dollar corporations that he had owned previously. The police gathered overwhelming evidence proving that, for more than a decade (from 1998-2009) while Lieberman served in various portfolios in the Israeli government, vast amounts of government contracts and money poured into these companies. Additionally, in violation of Israeli law, Lieberman also received income from these corporations while in office. Serving at the time as head of White Collar Crimes Department at the Israel State’s Attorney’s Office, I was in charge of the Lieberman case and thought he should be indicted. The Attorney General — Israel’s number one gatekeeper — Yehuda Weinstein, ultimately decided to close the case, and other peer gatekeepers in the law system also turned a blind eye. Lieberman answered the charges of bribery and corruption with a boast: “My advice is worth a lot of money.”
I considered Attorney General Weinstein’s decision to dismiss a grievous mistake, and one that threatened our justice system and the rule of law — backbones of the democracy I am so proud of and have dedicated my career to defending. For this reason I decided to write my book and to tell — through the prism of the Lieberman case and its regretful ending — how law enforcement authorities failed when dealing with corruption in the highest ranks of Israeli business and government.
While my book tells a story of surveillance, stakeouts and disappearing witnesses, of an intricate and fascinating world of inflated egos and intense emotions, of intrigues and hidden agendas, it also is a serious study, exploring how public politics can deeply affect organizational politics.
In this drama, the media plays an essential part, as do the police and States Attorney. These systems are comprised of individuals, each of whom has a role to play in creating checks and balances in a democracy. I wrote about them and the work that they do — work that is often far from easy and at times unrewarding. As part of their job, they must make tough decisions that not only determine the fate of others but also demand unwavering leadership.
As head of a significant department and the leader of Lieberman case team, I found myself at a crossroads many times — do I blow the whistle or stay clear of animosity and real threats to my career? Attorney General Weinstein, who had a long track record of defending the likes of Lieberman, was my superior and challenging him took resolve. Because there was no doubt in my mind that Lieberman should have been indicted, my path was clear and I tried to do the right thing.
I’m often asked if exposing corruption is good for the country. I was even faced with this question recently — just after the publication of my book — at the Wexner Israel Fellowship’s Leadership Forum, which dealt with the relationship between capital, power and democracy in Israel. Obviously, I think it is exactly the right thing to do and that our democracy depends on it. But others feel Israel is fragile or still a fledgling democracy: best to sweep things under the carpet. Furthermore, Israeli governmental watchdog agencies do not like to “air their dirty laundry in public,” even in order to cleanse it in the “disinfecting power of sunlight,” to paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court justice Louise Brandeis.
I am sensitive to that thinking and throughout my career, generally made a point of keeping any scandals I was investigating within the confines of “the system.” But I’ve come to realize that I was mistaken, that if we keep treating Israeli democracy as an infant, then we actually make it more vulnerable. The deep loyalty I felt — and in fact still do — to the law enforcement system, failed me.
During the decades I have served at the State Attorney’s office, I was a part of its law enforcement effort to fight against corruption in the civil service. For years, I have also been teaching and preaching before students about the importance of the rule of law in a proper democracy. I often ask myself to whom should I — and other attorneys and Wexner alumni — be accountable? How does one conduct oneself upon witnessing wrongdoings that are protected by arms of the government that are supposed to protect democracy and crack down on corruption? Should I have remained silent? Is it wise to protest loudly in hopes of bringing about change?
I regard attorneys, and in particular those in the civil service such as myself, as the gatekeepers of Israel’s society. As a citizen of Israel and a Wexner alum, I believe that the preservation of integrity in the civil service and of the democratic nature of our country should be a top priority on the public agenda. It is critical that we protect society from those who pursue politics for their own selfish ends, rather than for the greater good.
Throughout the years, my experience has taught me that speaking out is every bit as important as doing. I truly believe that each and every one of us at some point reaches a juncture in which we must choose whether to fight for what we believe to be righteous and just or “forever hold our peace.” This is what compelled me to write this book. I wanted to prevent us from plummeting into the void. I wrote this book as a woman of law and a citizen of Israel, out of a sense of duty to Israel’s society and in light of the events of recent years.
I also believe that as human beings, we are measured by the choices we make. I hope I’ve made the right one.
This week began Rosh Chodesh Iyar of the Hebrew year 5776. The celebration of the Passover — the story of our escape from Egypt and the birth of a nation — is behind us, and Independence Day is today. This year we shall celebrate 68 years of a Jewish democratic state founded on the principles of justice and law — a beacon for all nations.
Or is it? Being an optimist, I can only hope that the answer is still yes.
Avia Alef, an alum of the Wexner Israel Fellowship (Class 7), is an adjunct professor in the faculties of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, specializing in white collar crime. Until 2013, she was head of the Department of Economic Crimes in the State Attorney’s Office at the Ministry of Justice. She has substantive knowledge in criminal, economic-crime and tax affairs, acquired during her service in the Criminal, Fiscal and Economic Departments in the State Attorney’s Office and Jerusalem District Attorney’s Office. Avia has played an essential part in combating organized crime and economic crime, both in policymaking and implementation levels, and has various and extensive experience in litigation of numerous grand-scale cases and white collar crimes. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.