June 19, 1997
The choice of words spoke for itself. The five justices shared the prosecutors' doubts about the Likud ministers' motives but acknowledged that the evidence might not be strong enough to win a conviction for criminal conspiracy.
"The prime minister's decision and the behavior of the minister did not contradict the law," the court stated. "This does not mean that they did not contradict ethics."
The ruling was enough for Netanyahu's purpose.
"This is a day that has made all citizens of Israel happy," he said. "I intend to move forward and deal now with the problems connected to achieving peace and security and economic prosperity for the state of Israel."
Not everyone was dancing in the street, but since few bothered to read the small print, the prime minister could indeed draw a line under the affair, at least as far as his own jeopardy was concerned.
There were also ethnic rumbles from Shas, whose leader, Aryeh Deri, alone now faces prosecution as a result of the Bar-On affair (he was said to have pressed for Roni Bar-On's appointment in the hope of striking a plea bargain in his own long-running corruption trial). Deri's supporters were quick to point out again that, of the alleged conspirators, he was the only Sephardi.
On a broader front, Netanyahu's road to peace and prosperity is still paved with mines, not all of them sown by his Arab enemies. The prime minister this week canceled a scheduled visit to the United States. He had to stay home to deal with the accelerating crisis with American Jewry over the conversion bill, which seeks to consolidate the Orthodox rabbinate's jurisdiction over who is a Jew in Israel.
Netanyahu also faced revolts by Natan Sharansky's Russian immigrants party, which accused the prime minister of failing to honor his promises to subsidize jobs for immigrant scientists and for neglecting to consult the former Prisoner of Zion over the appointment of a new ambassador to Moscow; and from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, which was threatening to quit the government's ruling coalition over ancient Jewish bones dug up by archaeologists at Caesarea.
As if that were not enough, politicians across the right-left spectrum have been shadowed by another scandal: the police investigation of Gregory Lerner, an alleged Russian mafia don now living in Israel, who tried to buy favors by funding party campaigns in the 1996 elections. So far, no politicians have been accused of corruption.
Israelis, for whom Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism are, at best, marginal, are belatedly coming to terms with the depth of Diaspora anger over the conversion legislation, for which the Supreme Court had set a June 30 deadline.
Amid feverish efforts to patch together a last-minute compromise, the prime minister received a high-level Reform and Conservative delegation. "Moderate" Orthodox leaders and coalition politicians were drafted to explore rival formulas. Neither side, however, was disposed to yield.
At the time of writing, the stalemate remained. For Netanyahu's National Religious and haredi partners, the Orthodox monopoly is a matter of power as well as doctrine. Reform and Conservative Jews, as they see it, are heretics. "Pluralism," for which there is no Hebrew word, would also threaten their grip on the levers of patronage.
Since religious parties control 23 of the ruling coalition's 66 Knesset seats, Netanyahu cannot ignore them. Their defection would bring down his government. As he is learning yet again, even a directly elected prime minister is not invincible.
On their side, Reform and Conservative resistance was reinforced by vicious haredi attacks on non-Orthodox worshipers reading the Torah at the Western Wall on Shavuot. They were spat upon, pelted with rocks and bags of excrement, and denounced as "Nazis." The police asked them to leave because they could not guarantee their safety.
A leading Agudat Yisrael politician, Haim Miller, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, sought to justify the mayhem.
"The very fact that Conservative Jews, who symbolize the destruction of the Jewish people, came to the place that is holiest to the Jewish people is a provocation," he said. "They have no reason to be in this place."
In an editorial headlined "One Wall, One People," the Jerusalem Post countered that if anyone had "no reason" to be where he is, it was Miller, who, "as a representative of the city of Jerusalem, cannot treat a sizable portion of world Jewry as illegitimate."
The English-language daily added: "The Western Wall is not a private preserve of one branch of the Jewish people, particularly a branch that does not fully accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state in which it lives and flourishes."
Sadly, in an Israel polarized between Orthodox and secular, the Jerusalem Post remains a small and lonely voice. And Binyamin Netanyahu has many mines to defuse.