A Call to Adopt a Government Code of Ethics

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Such a code will not only prevent corruption, but in addition will prevent serious damage to the government’s image and attacks on law enforcement

Flash 90

The final decision on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal cases is fast approaching. The Attorney General has announced that he will publish his decision as to whether to indict Netanyahu pending a hearing before the elections. As we get closer and closer to that date, verbal attacks on law enforcement agencies are on the rise, and pressure on the Attorney-General grows more and more intense.

We can rest assured that the Attorney General will do a competent job. As someone entrusted with law enforcement, we can assume that he will fulfill his obligation to uphold the rule of law and ensure that law enforcement agencies are untainted by any political image or label. However, when the dust finally settles on the current storm, we should consider how to fortify the defense of law enforcement agencies and the principle of the rule of law.

Among the many steps that can be taken towards achieving this goal, the most important is to require elected officials to declare their commitment to the rule of law and their intention to honor decisions made by law enforcement agencies, both during and after their election campaigns. There are many other steps that can be taken to bolster the rule of law, protect law enforcement agencies, and prevent the recurrence of the current situation in which a Prime Minister finds himself accused of criminal acts, dealing a blow to the government’s image and arousing a great deal of tension.

I would like to focus on a suggestion that, for some reason, seems to have been forgotten – that is, that the government adopts a code of ethics for its members. This is a far better option than the proposal put forward in the outgoing Knesset to grant immunity to a prime minister while he is serving his term, a proposal that inherently violates the principle of equality before the law.

In 2008, a public committee appointed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented its recommendations on formulating a code of ethics for government members. The committee was headed by retired High Court President Meir Shamgar (Full disclosure: the author served as the committee secretary), and proposed rules to help government members who wished to abide by the law by providing them with clearly explicated ethical norms which should be guiding their behavior. These included directives on how to act if they find themselves suspected or accused of criminal acts: “A government member will suspend himself or resign when an official announcement is made by the law enforcement agencies authorized to issue such an indictment accusing him of serious crimes that are very harmful to the public’s trust in the government.”

The government appointed a ministerial committee to discuss these guidelines but has not yet decided on their adoption. Clearly, the government is not obliged to adopt the exact wording of the Shamgar committee guidelines, and can choose not to adopt an ethical code at all. However, the current Netanyahu affair brings the ramifications of not adopting such a code clearly to the fore.

Adoption of an ethical code would make it explicitly clear how a member of government is expected to behave, for example, when receiving gifts from friends or accepting help for funding legal expenses. Moreover, such a code will not only prevent corruption, but in addition, in the unfortunate case in which a member of the government is suspected of criminal acts, would prevent the current situation – that is, serious damage to the government’s image and attacks on law enforcement.

The article was published in The Times of Israel.