If Mazuz Was Weak

It is indeed regrettable that the attorney general's potency derives from the fact that he also functions as the head of the prosecution.

How would cabinet ministers have reacted to the decision by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to disqualify Yoel Lavi from serving as head of the Israel Lands Administration if Mazuz did not enjoy the professional prestige and public confidence that comes from his role as head of the public prosecution?

It is possible that a legislative process (either government-initiated or a private member's bill backed by the government) could get under way, aimed at establishing that the attorney general's opinions are no more than a recommendation that can be either accepted or rejected.

Such a process, which is by no means imaginary, would be a critical development in the slide toward corrupt government.

Mazuz, who began his term with the incorrect decision to close the Greek Island case against former prime minister Ariel Sharon, soon grew into one of the best attorney generals Israel has ever had. He carried out his duties as head of the prosecution with professionalism, wisdom, fearlessness and without bias.

With one hat, Mazuz has uncompromisingly combated governmental graft and with the other he has displayed all due restraint and caution in cases involving elected officials. He is approaching the end of his term with a record that includes convictions for ministers Abraham Hirchson, Haim Ramon and Shlomo Benizri and the indictment of former prime minister Ehud Olmert in the cases involving Rishon Tours, Talansky's money-stuffed envelopes, and the Investment Center. But that record also includes the dropping of the cases against Olmert in the Bank Leumi and Cremieux Street house affairs.

It is already possible to sum up his term and state that the substantial public confidence and professional admiration Mazuz has acquired was not due to his capacity as the legal adviser to the government, but as head of the prosecution.

If these functions had been separated, something Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman is now trying to achieve, it is doubtful whether the public would have ever known who Mazuz is, and whether it would have backed his decisions, such as disqualifying a man who had made racist remarks about Arabs from serving as the head of the ILA.

Without public backing it is doubtful that Mazuz would have been able to withstand the assaults against him by cabinet ministers, like Ramon, who accused him of judicial tyranny.

The government is capable of infringing upon the rule of law - as represented by the powers of opaque public officials - with worrying ease, as we learned from its support of a bill that would neutralize the legal advisers of government ministries and make them politically dependent on their ministers.

Neeman's support for this bill exposes the true motives behind his intention to separate the functions of the attorney general: making the holder of that office vulnerable and clearing the way for legislation that would establish that their opinions are not binding on the government.

If this is not the motive, it is hard to grasp why Neeman has suddenly felt the need to initiate a fundamental change in the combined office, as recommended by a professional committee headed by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court and attorney general, Meir Shamgar.

If this is not the motive, it is hard to see why Neeman is in so much of a hurry that he is ready to forgo even the appearance of making a principled move, a pretense that would have been achieved if, for example, the change that he has in mind were to take effect only after Mazuz's successor leaves office.

It is indeed regrettable that the attorney general's potency derives from the fact that he also functions as the head of the prosecution. But in the current reality, in which even cabinet ministers do not always respect laws passed by the Knesset, and some of them, it seems, are actually criminals, splitting the office of the attorney general is tantamount to smashing the institution itself and its power along with it. That is a real threat to the rule of law in Israel.