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He is leaving wreathed in plaudits. It's been a long time since we've had a civil servant who has been praised by almost everyone. Yes, the attorney general slipped up in the Greek island affair and let the Sharon family off the hook, but after that he took courage and prosecuted cabinet ministers and other bigwigs. No one doubts his integrity and everyone speaks about the modesty of this poor lad from Netivot who became a fount of the law. Menachem Mazuz deserves most of these laurels.

But what a surprise - one area has been totally distorted in all the flattery.

In the six years of Mazuz's term, especially in his final year, the State of Israel has become more stigmatized than ever before; it stands accused of being a serial offender against international law, with its leaders and military officers facing grave suspicions of perpetrating war crimes. In a few weeks, the six-month period of grace during which Israel was supposed to have set up an inquiry into Operation Cast Lead will come to an end, and Israel may find itself in the dock at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Mazuz is responsible for this. He could have prevented it. He could and should have issued warnings when there was still time. That's the job of the attorney general, in his capacity as legal adviser to the government. He could and should have stopped the army from running amok in Gaza, in real time. When the first clouds of white phosphorus hovered over the homes of the people of Gaza, and burned children were being brought to the hospitals, Mazuz should have spoken up and advised the government that it is illegal to use this weaponry against civilians. When hospitals, schools, factories, workshops and UN facilities were being bombarded, we should have heard from him. When innocent, helpless civilians were shot dead while carrying white flags, Mazuz should have waved a black flag over the whole operation.

But Mazuz remained silent. He was busy with the plea bargain for former president Moshe Katsav, and had no time for trivia like observing the laws of warfare. And later, not having done what he should have done, he at least could and should have urged the government to cooperate with Richard Goldstone's inquiry, and not to boycott it so foolishly. And finally, he could and should have long ago called upon the government to try to redeem itself at least partially by setting up an official inquiry of its own. He did none of these things. They say he is still trying to decide between different types of inquiry committees, or perhaps neither. If he goes on deliberating, he may well find himself in The Hague.

Neither did Mazuz speak up against the disgraceful mass arrests of left-wingers protesting against the Gaza war during the dark days of Operation Cast Lead. Close to 800 people were detained, and the attorney general held his peace and collaborated. Neither did he speak up when, week after week, the same police force arrested protesters demonstrating against settlers taking over Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah. Then too, he was busy with matters that he apparently considered more important. How characteristic it is, and how depressing, that one of the last decisions he made was to join the libel action against Mohammed Bakri for his film "Jenin Jenin," a lawsuit that is provocative and propaganda-inspired, that threatens free speech, and that already has been rejected once by the courts.

So Israel's 12th attorney general will be remembered as one who fought corruption, but only small-scale corruption, the misdeeds of individuals. When it came to the misdeeds of the state, Israel found itself bereft of an adviser, lacking a legal and ethical guide to show it the way, as Mazuz should have done. But that would have taken courage, a great deal of courage, even more than it takes to prosecute a president or a prime minister. Nobody would condemn him for that, but to stand up to the state? That was too much, even for Mazuz.

In the historical balance, therefore, this breach of trust will weigh against him, to a large degree overshadowing his achievements in other spheres, which are not to be taken lightly, but which are far less fateful for the way Israel is portrayed. When history asks where the attorney general was when all this happened, the reply will be silence. With predecessors like Haim Cohn long gone, and Aharon Barak sending faint signals from the United States, Mazuz could have been a beacon of light. Instead, he was a tiny pocket flashlight.