A heated debate about press freedom roiled the country Wednesday after a state prosecutor was suspended for slipping an Israeli reporter a document that outlined corruption allegations against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Liora Glatt-Berkovitch told investigators that she had leaked investigative documents in the midst of Sharon's campaign for reelection because she was frightened for her son, who is likely to be drafted into the army as the intifada rages with no end in sight, Israeli radio reported.
The documents showed that the prime minister was under investigation for fraud and breach of trust for allegedly accepting a $1.5-million campaign loan from a South African friend. The prime minister told investigators that the money came from a mortgage on his ranch.
The Haaretz newspaper broke the news earlier this month, and an infuriated Sharon and his ruling Likud Party slumped in opinion polls before rebounding. Immediately, to the outrage of journalists, civil libertarians and Sharon's opponents, Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein opened a controversial hunt for the source of the leak.
"Instead of urgently examining and investigating the matter of a politician's integrity, a vital issue before elections and not afterward, somebody decided that what was important was to examine who leaked," said Libi Mozel, a lawyer for Haaretz.
In an appearance before reporters, the attorney general defended his investigation.
"I am not a disciple of investigations into leaks, mainly because in the past they have not shown results," he said. "Two reasons led me to decide upon the investigation: ... the obstruction and damage caused to the [Sharon] investigation by the leak, and the suspicion, which unfortunately came true, that a source from the government made a political move in this sensitive period prior to the elections."
The probe into the leak came to a climax late Tuesday, when Haaretz crime reporter Baruch Kra was interrogated, facing charges of obstruction of justice. The threat of filing charges was a new tactic in a nation where reporters enjoy some privilege to protect their sources, and critics quickly decried it as a blow to press freedom.
It was "unprecedented and smells of pressure to reveal his sources," Press Council president Nitza Shapira Libai said. "Inconceivable in a democracy," said Haaretz's managing editor, Yoel Esteron. "Sadly, this attorney general has disgraced his office."
In the end, Kra said he refused to tell investigators who gave him the detailed letter written by Israeli investigators and addressed to the South African government. After half an hour, the reporter was released.
"I am as big a fan of freedom of the press as anyone," Rubinstein told reporters. "But a judicial leak is a grave matter, and the investigation required we question Kra as well."
At 2 a.m., Rubinstein revealed the identity of the tipster. Glatt-Berkovitch, who had been appointed by Rubinstein, was likely to be prosecuted, he said.
In the final days before the election Tuesday, more corruption allegations emerged in a campaign already thick with scandal. Israeli investigators seized documents from Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna's office. Mitzna, the mayor of the city of Haifa, is being investigated on suspicion of bribery for granting construction permits in exchange for discounted office space.
With the two top candidates under criminal investigation, Likud is still leading in the polls by a wide margin. A poll to be published today in Haaretz shows the ruling party projected to win about 30 parliament seats, 10 more than Labor is expected to claim.