When Menachem Mazuz was attorney general, he sought to expand and to sharpen the definitions of fraud and breach of trust - the charges of which Avigdor Lieberman was acquitted on Wednesday - to make it easier to convict public figures entangled in affairs that touch on the murky area of bribery.
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One of Mazuz’s ideas was to change these offenses from misdemeanors to felonies and to extend the maximum prison sentence beyond the three years it is today. "As far as I’m concerned, it can be three years and a day,” Mazuz told Justice Ministry officials at the time.
Mazuz’s motivation was obvious. He didn't want the magistrates’ courts to adjudicate cases involving these offenses, the purpose of which was to fight corruption in politics. He knew what happens when inexperienced judges from the lowest court level encounter power, how they tend to be lenient in their interpretation of the actions of powerful defendants and to identify with the arguments of their high-caliber defense lawyers. In adopting the narrative of the high-ranking defendant, the three judges who heard Lieberman’s case followed a two-decade old tradition of courts, particularly those of lowest instance, going easy on public figures.
On Wednesday, these judges gave politicians another free pass: From now on, they are free to be involved with individuals who give them sensitive information pertaining to investigations into their conduct, safe in the knowledge that naive judges will swallow any cockamamie story they tell them, without batting an eye. The judges’ wholesale acceptance of the defense’s version of events in Wednesday's ruling is yet more proof that in Israel, the principle of equality before the law has become an embarrassing farce.
Yet there is a certain poetic justice to this acquittal, in the public condemnation of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein it has unleashed. The Lieberman case was a small affair from the start, a marginal episode in a tangled, allegation-filled plot that snowballed to the doorstep of an attorney general inexperienced in dealing with mega-cases.
A year ago, Weinstein closed the big case against Lieberman and went to court with only the loose ends. He sent those who dared criticize his decision a slightly arrogant look and something like “Don’t try to tell me, with my 40 years of experience, what a criminal case is, I can tell immediately when a case is headed for acquittal.”
Weinstein was convinced that as he dealt with the Lieberman affair, he would teach the inquisitors from the State Prosecutor’s Office how to obtain a quick, brief and effective conviction with a simple evidence file, a simple radiation treatment instead of complex surgery that might kill the patient.
“With the case of the ambassador, he'll get exactly what everyone who sees Lieberman as a dangerous individual who steps over the line wants,” Weinstein's people explained, “conviction of an offense involving moral turpitude and expulsion from the centers of power.”
Weinstein’s grand preconception was smashed to smithereens, the grand failure of his tenure laid bare: zero convictions of public figures. Had Weinstein the patience and the sense of mission required of his office, he would have taken on the big case against Lieberman rather than settling for a flimsy charge sheet. All that's left is to see whether Weinstein makes good on his promise to pursue the case all the way, even to the Supreme Court. That seems likely, since the judges in Lieberman’s trial, like their colleagues in similar situations, gave Weinstein a lifeline: They wrote a verdict that invites overturning.