Immediately after taking up the presidency Shimon Peres visited the grave of David Ben-Gurion at Sde Boker. The visit was designed to express more than just a simple gesture by a student towards his admired mentor. Peres sought to state: I am the successor.
The question is: The successor to what? Ben-Gurion was a great leader, and like any great leader his shortcomings were also great. It would be very unfortunate if President Peres imitates Ben-Gurion's shortcomings.
The pardon of criminals is one of the only powers bestowed on the president. In a previous article, I suggested that Peres should not rush into exercising this power. He chose to act differently. The first to benefit was Naomi Blumenthal. The next candidates for clemency are violent criminals from the disengagement period, and peeking through the horizon is the possible clemency request for Omri Sharon and many others; the extent of the investigations equals the extent of the clemencies.
A law professor, Reuven Yaron, sent me a fascinating article he published in the Nation periodical on this subject 10 years ago. Yaron examined why and how the perpetrators of the first political assassination in Israel, the murder of Dr Israel Kastner, were pardoned.
Kastner, a leader of the Zionist movement in Hungary, is primarily remembered today as the grandfather of broadcaster Meirav Michaeli. During the Holocaust he negotiated with the Nazis in an attempt to save Jews and testified in favor of a Nazi following the Holocaust.
A religious wheeler-dealer named Malchiel Gruenwald published harsh accusations against him. The dispute made it to the courts. The district court ruled in favor of Gruenwald. The High Court ruled in favor of Kastner. In 1957 Kastner was murdered. Three people were convicted of the murder: Yossef Menkes, Ze'ev Eckstein and Dan Shemer.
Shemer was thought to have been a minor accomplice and his sentence was commuted. Justice Minister Dov Yosef and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi fiercely rejected the requests to mitigate the sentences of the other two.
Ben-Gurion the king
Menkes had a close acquaintance: Yehoshua Cohen from the Lehi underground movement. Cohen joined Kibbutz Sde Boker and befriended Ben-Gurion. In joint walks on the Negev roads, Cohen badgered Ben- Gurion about the need to release Menkes, because otherwise he would lose his sanity. Eckstein was connected to the Shin Bet. Ben-Gurion and the person in charge of security services, Isser Harel, handled the clemency as if there was no minister of justice or president.
Yaron premised his research on a book by Yechiel Weiss and on the diaries of Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion discussed the matter with Harel, the head of the Shin Bet Amos Manor, and with Yehoshua Cohen. He sent the head of the Shin Bet to convince Kastner's widow and daughter to allow the release of the murderers to go through.
After the head of the Shin Bet successfully completed the assignment, the prime minister remained with one concern: How to convince Menkes not to murder another person. For example – the justice that sentenced him to life imprisonment.
"Amos Manor maintains that if Yehoshu Cohen, Israel Eldad and Rabbi Levine would testify in favor of Menkes, the matter would almost be guaranteed," wrote Ben-Gurion. He highlighted the word "almost."
Ben-Gurion only informed the justice minister later on. Dov Yosef refused. He maintained that Yehoshua Cohen's opinion on the mental state of the murderer was dubious and demanded to bring in a psychiatrist. His request was rejected. He later agreed to negotiate the matter and finally capitulated.
Meanwhile, Ben-Zvi passed away. Zalman Shazar was elected in his place. The day he entered office in May 1963, he received a detailed recommendation from the justice minister and immediately complied. Shemer was released within a few days, while Menkes and Eckstein were released within five months. They served a six-and-a-half year prison sentence - small change where murder is concerned, and for a political murder at that.
Professor Yaron reconstructed Shazar's first day in office. It was a very busy day. Shazar didn't have the time to seriously read the files placed on his desk. Ben-Gurion wanted it, the justice minister gave in, and Shazar signed. "I am happy that I can grant grace on my first day," the president said festively, and thus the matter came to an end.
Ben-Gurion handled this affair as though he were a king, not a prime minister in a democratic country. What kind of a king are you if you can't grant a favor to a friend. Peres will do well if he chooses not to follow in his footsteps.