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Joshua Pilpel regrets only one ruling in the 35 years he served as a judge: his decision to free the highest-ranking Soviet spy ever caught in Israel, Marcus Klingberg, after 16 years of incarceration.

Klingberg had appealed to the court for an early release, citing severe ill health. His requests had been rejected time and again, by the prison parole board, the district court and the Supreme Court. But in September 1998, a three-man bench on which Pilpel sat decided to release him, four years before he completed his sentence.

"There were differences of opinion among us," recalled Pilpel, who retired from his position as president of the Be'er Sheva District Court last month. "We understood that Klingberg's days were really numbered. Meanwhile, one of the judges on the panel has died, as have other people, but he is still alive. It seems to me that the doctors pulled the wool over our eyes. That's what I think."

In retrospect, he believes that Klingberg should have ended his days in jail rather than in exile in Paris, even if solely for deterrent reasons.

"I regret that we set him free; today I would not have done so," he said. "He committed crimes that were terrible, absolutely awful. I don't know whether there has ever been anyone who harmed national security like he did ... Today, I think he should have been left in jail until the end of his life."

Pilpel related that Yehiel Horev, who was in charge of security in the defense establishment, came to the judges' bureau and said, "Gentlemen, you should know that the minute this man is freed, he will spread all his secrets abroad and the whole world will know them. I request that you not do so."

Pilpel said he shared that fear, but it ultimately proved unfounded: "To this day, he has not disappointed us."

Pilpel, who is 70, is now awaiting a decision from the Judicial Appointments Committee as to whether he can continue to work as an associate judge, a position reserved for retired judges who wish to continue serving. Meanwhile, he feels hurt that some judges consider the Be'er Sheva District Court, where he served as president since 2003, as a mere stepping stone to an appointment in the center of the country.

"There was a magistrate from Haifa, Erika Something [Erika Priel], who was a candidate for the Be'er Sheva District Court," he recalled. "I don't know her. I never met her and she did not request an interview with me, nor did she send me her rulings. I told [Supreme Court] President Dorit Beinisch that in my opinion, there was no reason to appoint a Haifa judge to the Be'er Sheva court, because he would want to leave after a year or two. I wrote that I recommended not accepting judges from outside the area."

But that is easier said than done. "There are magistrates who wanted to be accepted to the Tel Aviv District Court but didn't succeed, and they are perennial candidates here," he explained. "And we don't have enough good candidates from the Be'er Sheva Magistrate's Court. Most of the good magistrates in Be'er Sheva are still young."

To find a replacement for Pilpel, the Courts Administration set up a search committee that was headed by the president of the Haifa District Court, Bilha Gal-Or. "That is very insulting," he said. "Gal-Or is very talented and I respect her, but there is an issue of how things look. When they recently sought a president for the Tel Aviv District Court, they set up a committee headed by a Supreme Court justice."

Is that because Be'er Sheva is the court system's backyard?

"I don't want to answer that question."

Were you hurt?

"Hurt ... It makes me very angry."

How did they respond?

"They deny it. No one admits it's true."

You sat on benches that heard appeals from magistrate's courts throughout the south. Were there rulings by magistrate's courts that made you ask yourself, 'where does this come from?'

"It happens not infrequently ... sometimes."

What is the reason - lack of legal knowledge on the judges' part? Problems in understanding the evidence?

"I'll tell you a secret: Even on the Supreme Court they make mistakes, but when that happens, there is no one to correct the mistakes. When a magistrate makes a mistake, his mistake is corrected."

In general, Pilpel feels that the present generation does not live up to previous ones. "The judges we had once are not the judges we have today. In the days when we sat opposite justices like Shimon Agranat or Moshe Landau, we thought they were giants, perhaps because I was so small and they were at their peak. Today, I don't think that way about other judges ... There truly were some outstanding individuals. Professors [Aharon] Barak, Yitzhak Zamir, [Izhak] Englard - they were intellectual giants. Today, people are less impressive. There's nothing we can do about that. The district court judges we used to have are also not the district court judges of today."

Today's judges include "a large number of technocrats," he continued. "Not all of them, but there are technocrats. There are judges who know how to make exceptional calculations in tort cases, but they do not have the intellectual powers and the erudition of the judges of yesteryear. There are no intellectual giants today."

Pilpel was considered a strict judge who convicted most of those who appeared before him. He is not bothered by Israel's high conviction rate, which approaches 100 percent.

"I don't believe it's bad, because there are filters - the police, if we are talking about a police case, or else the prosecution. And a great many cases stop there. What can one do? A criminal must be punished. But that is not a hard and fast rule. There are people whom we acquit."

How many people did you acquit?

"I even acquitted someone in a murder case ... Two or three years ago, I acquitted someone of murder. I also acquitted people of rape."

Did you acquit only once in a murder case?

"I remember that one time, because I had doubts."

Pilpel has not forgotten Kiryat Gat Magistrate Nechama Nezer, who would mete out "light" sentences - 15 days' imprisonment - to Palestinians who entered Israel illegally but were first-time offenders, despite repeated rulings by the Be'er Sheva District Court that sentenced such people to several months in jail. Nezer's position was recently vindicated by the Supreme Court, which criticized the district court for being so severe. But Pilpel has not forgiven Nezer, though he refrained from mentioning her by name.

"For years, magistrates were guided by our rulings," he said. "But she suddenly decided they were not binding. I don't think it's fitting for a magistrate's court to come out against a district court ... A magistrate can't kick us in the teeth and say he doesn't care what we rule. This annoys me, and it annoys the other judges here. She has the right to say what she likes; if she hurt us, she hurt us. So she doesn't know how to behave ... But it's an issue of courtesy. This is discourtesy, perhaps even disdain."

But the Supreme Court accepted her approach.

"They are allowed to ... I stand by the rulings I wrote."

Last month, Pilpel wrote his last ruling - about farmer Shai Dromi, who was charged with manslaughter after shooting a Bedouin man who tried to break into his farm. Dromi was acquitted due to reasonable doubt.

"I had very serious inner struggles," Pilpel said. "This is not mathematics. There are not many clear-cut cases. I have inner struggles, and I also consult others."

But Pilpel is proud of the result even if, he said, he noticed that the Southern District's chief prosecutor, Iscah Leibowitz, listened to the ruling "in mourning, with bowed head."

"I didn't notice anyone criticizing the ruling," he said. "But on the other hand, the Arabs were hurt. Arabs demonstrated here next to the building. I saw it through the window and it frightened me. The court's security officer said he had heard they were planning to demonstrate outside my home in Omer. I immediately telephoned my wife and they sent a guard who sat there for 24 hours, but nothing happened."