Wednesday, January 31, 2007

When is a kiss more than a kiss?

In the biblical Song of Songs, written by King Solomon, the second sentence goes: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.”

Not for Chaim Ramon, it isn’t. Israel’s Justice Minister now faces up to three years in prison for forcing a kiss on a young female soldier after she’d asked him to pose with her in a photograph.

The soldier, identified in the trial only as “H,” is shown with her face blurred beyond recognition. According to “H,” a young soldier finishing her army service in the office of the then Justice Minister, she'd wanted a picture hugging the 56-year old Ramon. After the picture, according to “H,” Ramon put his hand to her cheek and pressed his lips to her, forcing his tongue in her mouth.

According to Ramon, the photographer left the room, and so did he and “H.” They returned a few minutes later and Ramon kissed the willing young woman. This is different in substance from “H’s” version.

“His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.” (Chapter 5, line 16)

Clearly, this was written neither by “H,” nor the three-judge panel sitting in the Jerusalem coutrroom, that decided Ramon’s guilt. The judges decided that “H” had a different and more believable tale to tell. Namely, that Ramon had crossed the line forcing his intentions on the young woman.

The judges also said essentially that Ramon had tried to ‘spin’ his way out of the charges, blaming the girl and changing the events to suit himself. This attempt at worming out of the charges really angered the judges, two of whom were women.

The implications of the conviction are that this type of behavior, long accepted in the Israeli corridors of power, will no longer be tolerated. Ramon must now give up his cabinet position as a minister in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government. A shake-up of the cabinet will result in a sort of ministerial musical chairs.

Ramon is the second Kadima Party member to be ousted from the Justice Ministry. Ramon took over the post from Knesset Member Tzachi HaNegbi, who had to excuse himself from that position as a result of an inquiry into influence peddling while on the job.

Then there is the case of Israel’s First Citizen President Moshe Katzav, who was forced to leave his office at least until his "rape" trial is over, which may take years. Katzav packed up his belongings on Tuesday Jan 30 and left the President’s Residence in Jerusalem for his native Kyriat Malachi.

The charges against Katzav are much more grave than those against Ramon. Katzav is about to be indicted on three counts of rape. So far his spin-meisters have defended him in the press with charges that “A” had been a stripper, a call girl, and a close confidant of Likud Party Central Committee members, out to get Katzav because he refused to grant pardons to convicted criminals tied to the Central Committee.

Maybe. But even if the woman was a stripper, and even a hooker, if he raped her, he committed a serious felony and will probably be convicted.

It is unlikely that either Ramon or Katzav will go to jail. Ramon is planning an appeal, and in all likelihood will get off with a light sentence, probably involving community service.

Katzav apparently had been offered a deal early on in the investigation: 'Resign from the Presidency, and the charges will be dropped.' This in an effort to save the country the embarrassment of having their “First Citizen” accused, and perhaps convicted, of rape.

Katzav reportedly turned the offer down. He held stubbornly to the idea that the storm would abate and he would remain in office. But he guessed wrong.

Lastly, on the agenda of corruption, we have the tax scandal. The investigation into the head of the tax authority and his cronies goes far beyond the few who have made the news so far. The ramifications of this investigation, coupled with the conviction of Justice Minister Ramon and the indictment of President Moshe Katzav may well spell a new morality in Israel. Maybe.

Meanwhile, rumors still abound concerning Prime Minister Olmert’s lack of honesty. One source quoted another source, who said he’d seen Olmert come into Israel with suitcases filled with money. Is this true? Nothing has even been hinted of such a thing in the press, but the source claims his source ‘knows what he’s talking about.’

Anyone entering Israel through the red or green lines knows that the customs officials aren’t exactly hawk-eyed. They’re good at catching people with extra bottles of whiskey visible in red and white duty free boxes atop their suitcases, and are happy to charge 250 per cent fine on each bottle and another 250 per cent tax.

But one finds it hard to believe they’d stop Ehud Olmert and open up his suitcases. So perhaps he has been smuggling in money. Who knows? Given that the tax authorities are suspected of high-level corruption, one could imagine a scenario where a few phone calls are made, on a regular basis, to ease the passage through customs of ‘friends’ of the right people. Perhaps even PM Olmert. Such is the way of the world, at least in the Middle East.

Then we have the issue of the Winograd Commission investigating the Second War in Lebanon. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz resigned, and his position was taken by the popular general Gabi Ashkenazi. Halutz then went before the Winograd Commission and blamed his bosses, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for the failures of the military in the war.

According to Halutz the order to call up the reserves wasn’t given immediately upon the outbreak of the war, nor was a massive troop invasion devised until the third week of the war. Others giving testimony claimed that Halutz himself was not interested in a ground offensive, believing the Air Force could destroy Hezbollah. It took weeks for him to admit his mistake, according to testimony of other generals. Halutz now blames Olmert and Peretz for that indecision.

A petition was recently circulated in the Israeli media showing the signatures of fifty Israeli Army generals calling for the resignation of Amir Peretz as Defense Minister. One former head of military intelligence said that Peretz, Olmert and Halutz did more in one month to damage Israel’s image as a fierce military power than anyone else had done in the last thirty years.

Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah has been mocking Israel’s military strength in public. He claims to have badly defeated the greatest superpower in the Middle East with a few hundred men and a lot of rockets.

Waiting in the wings is former Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak. Polls show that Barak is now the number one choice for Defense Minister. Most Israelis want someone with proven experience in the position.

When a radio interviewer asked the former military intelligence chief why a civilian Minister of Defense, like those in Britain and the USA, wasn’t preferable, the ex-chief answered, “They don’t have to fight wars for their survival. We do.”

He also cited the lack of success US civilian heads of the military have had going back to Viet Nam and up to Iraq.

Taking all of the above in perspective, it seems that Israel is in the midst of a maelstrom of change. The winds of winter blustering around the streets of Jerusalem may well bring with them not only spring flowers, but a new approach to how Israel is governed.