Israel Pulse

Did Israel's judicial system cover up sex scandal?

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Article Summary
The sexual harassment investigation into Judge Yitzak Cohen is the result of a transparency revolution in Israel empowered by social media.

In the summer of 2006, two senior police officers rushed to Guatemala to convince "H" to return to Israel and testify against former Justice Minister Haim Ramon. H was a female officer in the office of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Ramon was suspected of having kissed her against her will several weeks earlier. Initially, H did not want to submit a police complaint, but heavy pressure was exerted on her by, among others, Lt.-Cmdr. Miri Golan, who served at the time as head of the police department’s National Fraud Squad.

The police and state attorney turned Ramon’s kiss into the serious offense of sexual harassment. No one denied that Ramon’s behavior was problematic, but equally troubling were the efforts and resources invested in pressuring H to complain to the police and then testify against the high-level minister. At the time, Ramon was attempting to implement structural changes in the Justice Department. He was eventually convicted of harassment, and to this day, Ramon blames the state attorney and police, claiming that they had ulterior motives to discredit him.

Eight years later, Ramon’s arguments are again relevant amid the current accusations of sexual harassment leveled against Nazareth District Court Judge Yitzhak Cohen. Cohen had been a candidate for Supreme Court justice until the beginning of September, when a criminal investigation commenced against him on suspicion of harassing and perpetrating indecent acts against various women.

One of the incidents being investigated ostensibly took place about two years ago, when Cohen allegedly sexually harassed a female prosecutor from northern Israel. It turns out that the then-state prosecutor, Moshe Lador, had learned about the incident shortly after it happened, when the district attorney reported to him what the female prosecutor had told her. This information was also relayed to Cohen’s deputy, Judge Tawfik Katili.

What was done with the information? Not much, it turns out. Cohen continued to serve in the distinguished post of president of Nazareth’s District Court, and even ran for the post of High Court justice. At that point, embarrassing incidents from his past started to surface. This type of thing happens not infrequently when a person is on the verge of being promoted to a higher position.

How is it possible that the same law enforcement system that flew its agents around the world to convince H of the Ramon affair to testify against him can now turn around and operate like a private club that allegedly whitewashes sexual harassment charges against one of its members?

The public will justifiably ask why did the police and state attorney go into overdrive only three months ago to inquire into the sexual harassment charges against Minister Silvan Shalom? Why did they spend weeks on vain attempts to persuade one of the women to testify against him?

Meanwhile, it has been made public that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni ordered a probe to determine whether there had been a cover-up on the part of Lador and other highly placed figures. From one moment to the next, it seems that the Cohen sexual harassment affair is snowballing into a cover-up in which legal system officials knew about the allegations but kept mum.

The Cohen affair is intolerable not only because of its criminal and human severity, but also because of the obtuseness of Cohen’s colleagues, headed by Lador. While Lador does enjoy a reputation of being the “terror of the politicians,” when it came to Cohen he evidently did not find it important to get to the truth.

Lador's comments in his defense, relayed via his associates to Israeli TV Channel 2, are even more infuriating. “It is definitely not clear whether this was a criminal case of sexual harassment. What was examined was found not to justify steps to be taken by the state attorney. The female prosecutor did not complain. … She also did not feel it was a criminal incident, and she emphasized to us that if we proceeded with the case, she would deny it. … A certain amount of inquiry was carried out. The conclusion: There was no way to properly handle the information she gave. At the time, it was viewed as irresponsible on our parts to advance in the direction of an investigation.”

But the public, and certainly the politicians, can justifiably ask themselves one question: How is it that when the women were reluctant to testify in the cases of Ramon and Shalom, heavy pressure was exerted on them? In the case of Ramon, it even succeeded. Why then, with regard to Cohen, did Lador confine himself to “a certain amount of inquiry” never revealed to the public? Why did the suspicions remain within the walls of the court? Can it be that judges are subject to different standards?

On Sept. 12, news of another case emerged in which a high-level judge was suspected of sexual harassment. In an interview with Channel 2, lawyer Avital Ben-Noun (former Haifa district prosecutor) revealed that a Haifa District Court judge had sexually harassed her 18 years ago. Then, too, the incident was not leaked to the press, and no attempt was made to investigate to find the truth although Ben-Noun had reported the incident. Today, as then, she does not plan to file a complaint. Nevertheless, the government's legal adviser has ordered an investigation of the incident, although the statute of limitations has apparently expired.

The profusion of exposures and investigations are the result of a transparency revolution taking place in front of our eyes via social networks. In the new media age, it is difficult to halt the flow of information. Inevitably, it will come out. Even when the traditional media deliver the initial scoop, the social networks will not let the issue die and disappear if the public feels that injustice has been done. The social networks encourage and facilitate a glimpse into the backyards of the establishment, government institutions, police, army and state attorney.

The public wants to know if some are “more equal than others” before the law. Therefore, it behooves Livni to ensure that the inquiry into a possible cover-up of the Cohen affair is serious, thorough and speedy. The public demands transparency.

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Found in: sexual harassment, judges, israeli courts, israeli politics

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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