Against the Current

"The Goldstone report is haunting us and will continue to haunt us."

Outside, the future is already waiting: attorney Yehuda Weinstein, in a striped suit, arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem in a black Mercedes for meetings to acquaint himself with the items currently on the attorney general's agenda. Inside, though, Menachem (Meni) Mazuz is still here. Wearing a light-blue shirt and a slightly loose tie, he appears at the entrance to the bureau exactly on time to receive his guests. Quiet, lean, with thin-framed eyeglasses, he offers a misleading smile. Seemingly gentle, seemingly fragile, seemingly dispassionate.

But a second glance at the man who has just concluded his term shows the stuff Israel's 11th attorney general is made of. The relevant traits: punctiliousness, exactitude, persistence, unbending integrity. Also: obsessive perfectionism; abhorrence of all moral pollution; zero tolerance for professional sloppiness; and a strong tendency to repress emotions and bend them to an iron will of reason.

It is no coincidence that the rabbi's son from the Tunisian island of Djerba, who read Jabotinsky as a youth, became a great admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche and Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Why Nietzsche? For the intellectual tempestuousness. Why Leibowitz, the Israeli scientist and philosopher? For the immaculate rational knowledge. If he had not gone into law, he would have been an architect, says Meni Mazuz as he takes a seat at the head of the long table. I would have had to anchor my love of drawing in something concrete, practical, that would restrain my inner creativity, he says; something that would serve people.

Behind the attorney general are two black and white photographs. In one, Herzl envisions the state; in the other, Ben-Gurion proclaims its establishment. According to a famous legend, when Mazuz took office six years ago, he said he did not want the president and the prime minister on the wall behind him, because they might end up on the desk in front of him. And end up there they did, bound in the thick cardboard file folders of the State Prosecutor's Office. Mazuz pulled Ariel Sharon out of the judicial-political hangman's noose, but did not spare Moshe Katsav and Ehud Olmert. Nor Avraham Hirchson, Shlomo Benizri, Haim Ramon and Omri Sharon.

Never was there an attorney general who filed indictments against both a president and a prime minister, after sending a finance minister and a health minister to jail and obtaining the conviction of a justice minister. It's doubtful whether there has ever been a head of the state prosecution in any democracy whose influence was so great and who acted with such determination.

The world of Israeli law is divided between two camps that are locked in mortal combat: Beinischists and Friedmannists. When Mazuz took office, the Friedmannists expected him to be one of their own and foment reforms in their spirit, by cutting back on indicting public figures and restraining the over-justiciability of the Israeli system. However, within a short time they discovered their mistake. From their point of view, the person who was supposed to be a reformer turned out to be an arch-inquisitor.

The truth is that no one should have been surprised. Mazuz does not belong to any group, is not committed to any group and does not engage in groupthink. He lives his life between the groups and outside the groups. His strength lies in his solitariness. In being a no-camp person.

For the past six years, Mazuz worked seven days a week, 15 hours a day. He barely read books, hardly saw any movies, rarely went to the theater. He not only conducted highly publicized struggles, but managed the ongoing legal affairs of the State of Israel proficiently and professionally. However, the most dramatic moments in these years were those in which he stood almost alone against the madding crowd. And the moments in which he faced prodigious forces that tried to shatter the system of which he was in charge and the values in which he believes. So that, as of this week the retired AG has no intention of doing anything except read, read and read. And watch movies and go to the theater, to recharge himself with culture and knowledge. Supreme Court justice? Possibly. Mazuz does not rule out the possibility. But first of all, rest.

You conducted an investigation of the state president, Moshe Katsav, in which you created expectations that he would be convicted on rape charges - but five months later you agreed to a diluted plea bargain with him. In a word, you zigzagged.

"I don't think I zigzagged, if only because the indictment that was filed at the end of March 2009 is more or less the draft of the indictment from January 2009. The Katsav affair weighs on me. I have a lot to say about it but I can't say it, because the trial is in its midst, at its decisive stage. So I will be cautious in what I say.

"When you check the facts, you discover that it was the media that created the expectations in the Katsav case. At least three major newspapers had stories about Katsav which they had not previously published. When we launched the investigation at our own initiative, they published the stories with a big splash, with banner headlines. For weeks and months, the papers were filled with stories that were told to reporters but did not leak from the investigation. In contrast, our messages were restrained and always had the aim of lowering expectations. Even when we announced, in January 2007, that we were considering the possibility of filing an indictment on various charges, including rape, I made it clear that this was not a final decision and was subject to a pre-indictment hearing. I knew already then that it was a very complex case, far from simple in terms of its content."

Was it a mistake to talk publicly about rape?

"The inclusion of rape was not a mistake and is not a mistake today. The trial that is now under way includes the rape charges. It's not something we blurted out and then found to be baseless. The rape suspicions are the very heart of the Katsav case."

If so, why the plea bargain? Why did you agree to let off a rape suspect so lightly?

"The problem we faced was the disparity between factual truth and legal truth. Together with the state attorney and the assistant state attorney, I was convinced that the complaints were substantive. On the other hand, we saw the difficulty of getting this across in court. There are very rigid rules in criminal proceedings in court. In the pre-indictment hearing, Katsav's lawyers did not add much that was new, but they honed the very difficulties that were bothering us. Unusually, they also submitted new evidence. A dilemma of all-or-nothing ensued.

"The 'nothing' alternative looked very bad to us. We believed the stories were not made out of whole cloth. That there was not just one case and not just two and not just three. That these were suspicions of highly sensitive offenses on the part of the number one citizen of the State of Israel. To end the affair with nothing would send a very undesirable message and also constitute a serious injustice. On the other hand, the 'all' alternative was also a rough ride. A large part of the events that were uncovered in the investigation could no longer be prosecuted under the statute of limitations, and of the events that were still subject to prosecution, the central one involved two cases of rape that occurred in 1998. The events are not documented, you have to rely on memory, there is little relevant evidence. So you have a high-risk case here.

"My general approach was that in cases involving public figures it is not right to strike a plea bargain. But when we faced the two problematic all-or-nothing alternatives, we thought a plea bargain would achieve a significant amount of the goals of the process: exposure, conviction, opprobrium.

"I understand the criticism of the plea bargain. It is legitimate to think that it was unjustified. But it is impossible to claim that our decision was unreasonable. We confronted constraints and difficulties that made it a reasonable possibility."

Allow me to conjecture that you found the decisions in the Katsav case difficult.

"Without a doubt. From my point of view, a hard decision is not one that entails dramatic significance, a decision relating to an important person. A hard decision is one in which I genuinely agonize over what the right thing to do is, one that is very disturbing. In the Katsav case I understood the meaning of the phrase about 'sleepless nights.' On those nights when I could not sleep, I confronted the cruel dilemma between the difficult alternatives. And the gap between the public image and the legal reality. The decisions were extremely difficult. At the same time, if there had not been a plea bargain, my clear tendency was to file a full indictment, including the rape charges."

Once again you made history. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated against you in Rabin Square. It was the first mass demonstration against an attorney general in Israel's history.

"I can understand the demonstration against the background of the disparity that arose between the expectations and the prosaic reality. But I want to remind you that we were the ones who initiated the Katsav investigation. Other systems knew and did nothing. We were the ones who exposed it, who broke the conspiracy of silence, and we did not let up. According to an article by Dr. Orit Kamir, never before had a head of state been investigated or tried for sexual offenses. We made a geometric leap in this sphere."

After Katsav canceled the plea bargain and you filed an indictment anew, did you feel more sure of yourselves?

"The process we undertook ahead of making the final decision last March was very important from our point of view. On the one hand, loose ends were tied up which we believed reinforced the evidence. On the other hand, we undertook a process of rethinking in which we formulated a far tighter and clearer approach to the case. Accordingly, we reached the indictment stage with greater conviction."

Will he be convicted?

"Our decision to file an indictment means that we reached the conclusion that there is a reasonable chance of obtaining a conviction. We are not selling insurance policies. But I did not deviate from my outlook and policy of not going to court with a case unless I am convinced that it deserves to be heard in court and that there is a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction."

When all is said and done, do you have any regrets about your handling of the Katsav case?

"When I look at myself in the mirror, I think I am definitely proud regarding the Katsav case. We opened the case. We went with open eyes into something we knew was not going to be simple. And I think that despite no few tough tests, in the end I believe that both the decisions and the overall handling of the case were right. I think it made an important contribution to the struggle against sexual harassment and sexual offenses and against exploiting a position of power. There was a clear statement: No one is outside the law, not even the president of Israel."

Let's sum up: You fought governmental corruption, you did battle against presidents and fat cats. But in the end, as a result of your preoccupation with these glittering cases, you neglected the war on crime.

"That is one of the more inaccurate summations that were made. Three-four years ago, we had a situation in which the heads of crime organizations went around like celebrities, with armed bodyguards and armored jeeps, and felt completely self-confident. Not one head of a crime organization was behind bars. The phenomenon was known, but was handled haphazardly. Today, in contrast, there are no armed bodyguards and no armored jeeps and the celebrity aspect is less glowing, too. Most of the leaders of the criminal organizations are behind bars. A great many soldiers of the crime families are behind bars. Organized crime is on the defensive."

How did that come about?

"We defined organized crime as a strategic enemy. We created a joint forum for the struggle against organized crime, with the participation of the police commissioner, the state prosecutor, the heads of the police investigations and intelligence branches, the head of the Tax Authority and the head of the Securities Authority. We initiated a process of joint, coordinated work among all the enforcement agencies. We developed an approach within which we go after these organizations in the criminal sphere, the economic sphere and other spheres. We created new tools to allow the implementation of this work plan. Simultaneously, the Israel Police upgraded its capabilities. It acquired some of the abilities and technologies that have made the Shin Bet security service so effective at preventing terrorism."

So you adopted the Al Capone principle: If you can't get them for murder, get them for tax evasion.

"The principle is that we will get them for both murder and tax evasion. There is an understanding that the crime organizations are economic entities whose reason for existence is to generate financial revenues. So we attack them on a number of fronts in order to weaken them and ultimately disband them. In this sphere we set in motion a revolution that has not yet been completed."

If so, despite your bespectacled and lean exterior, you are something of a Giuliani.

"I don't know Giuliani all that well. But I can say that the systematic and orderly work that was done around this table led to very significant achievements at the level of results."

OK, summa cum laude in the struggle against governmental corruption and the underworld. But in the area of human rights you dozed - you did very little.

"Israel is in a complex situation in regard to human rights. In many areas, Israel's defense of human rights is at a very high level. But there are problematic areas, too. We have a problem maintaining human rights with the Palestinians and with Arabs in Israel. We are not able to provide marriage solutions to quite large population groups.

"When I entered office, I made human rights one of the subjects I wanted to advance. Accordingly, I worked to prevent discrimination against Arabs. I introduced affirmative action arrangements in the civil service for hiring Arabs. I treated manifestations of incitement and racism with a hard hand. I disqualified a candidate for head of the Israel Lands Administration because the candidate had made flagrantly racist statements. I issued a directive to revoke a decision that allowed the expropriation of Palestinian property in East Jerusalem. I took a very clear stand against the banning of Arab lists for the Knesset elections. I forbade state authorities to fund or support unauthorized settler outposts. I made an effort to enforce the law in Judea and Samaria, even though we have a serious problem in that regard.

"In other spheres, in the past six years decisions were made that recognize the rights of same-sex couples in inheritance laws, National Insurance allowances, tax exemptions and the adoption of children. I was the first attorney general who went to court on his own initiative to ask for the retrial of a convicted person."

You defended Highway 443, the apartheid road.

"In court, we defended a position that said changes were needed in the traffic arrangements on that road. I believe that in the dynamic of work between the defense establishment and us and the courts, each element contributes its share. It is a healthy dynamic."

You did not intervene in the face of the cruelty in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarra.

"The legal question in regard to Sheikh Jarra is being clarified in court. I believe that the problem in Sheikh Jarra is not a legal one. It is a problem of friction between population groups. It is the government that must decide whether to allow the creation of such flashpoints."

Do you support recognition of same-sex marriages in Israel?

"Personally, yes. I see it as a matter of individual autonomy and individual privacy. But legislation is needed. As attorney general, my policy was to place the broadest possible interpretation on the existing laws."

In Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, did you not give backing to war crimes?

"No, absolutely not. We did much to inculcate the norms of international law with regard to military activity. The essence of those norms boils down to a prohibition on attacking civilians and civilian targets."

But the Goldstone report states that Israel made a decision to launch Operation Cast Lead with the aim of attacking civilians.

"The Goldstone report is 600 pages long and contains numberless things. I think there are a great many flaws in the report; there is no doubt that it contains numerous unfounded or baseless conclusions. It has a clear bias. At the same time, I cannot address every item of information in the report. I can say that, contrary to the assertion of the report, the goals of Operation Cast Lead were legitimate.

"That said, the Goldstone report poses very difficult problems for Israel. It is an official document produced by a distinguished committee that states that Israel made a decision to perpetrate war crimes. I think this is totally unfounded, but it is the finding of an official report, which is today in every library and on every Web site. The Goldstone report is haunting us and will continue to haunt us. It also states that Israel is not equipped to deal with complaints about war crimes. As such, it negates our legitimization. It does not lower the credit rating of legitimization but negates it completely."

What you are saying is that even now, the Goldstone report continues to pose a concrete threat to Israel.

"The Goldstone report is a serious threat to Israel. Therefore, it is my opinion that Israel has a clear interest in conducting a serious, expert examination that will deal with the report and produce an opposing report."

Do you mean a commission of inquiry under Aharon Barak, the former president of the Supreme Court?

"There is no doubt that Aharon Barak is the Israeli jurist who enjoys the highest prestige in the world. But I do not want to appoint any particular person. I think Israel has to address this problem, which is not going to fade away by itself. I understand the hesitations of the establishment. But it would be a serious mistake not to establish some sort of committee. We must remove the shame of Israel's being accused of perpetrating war crimes. There is a danger here of the Serbianization of Israel."

We haven't talked about former justice minister Daniel Friedmann. What was it like working with him?

"It was unprecedented. Never before was there anything like it in the Justice Ministry. To the best of my knowledge, there was never anything like it in any government ministry. A minister enters the system and sees it as his primary task to struggle and attack and vilify the system of which he is the head. What the majority of the actions initiated by Minister Friedmann had in common was the weakening of the entire judicial system: legal advisers, police, prosecution, courts. All of them were too strong for his liking. I find it difficult to understand how he failed to grasp what the consequence was liable to be of weakening all these systems. The consequence would have been that all the rats would have come out of the woodwork and start to celebrate. That much is clear."

One of the proposals put forward by Friedmann and the Friedmannists was to split the position of attorney general. But I will not ask you about that acrimonious debate. I will ask you what you believe are the essential qualities of an attorney general.

"The one essential quality is a backbone, to stand firm. This is a position fraught with tension and with never-ending pressure of an almost unreasonable nature. Anyone who is not cut out to withstand pressure and to operate in an atmosphere of pressure will not be able to function. The second essential quality is a conscience that guides you. A solid value system. In this post you cannot conduct yourself with a utilitarian aim or randomly or according to what others say to you. You need a very clear inner compass that tells you where to go."

If you were to leave a sealed envelope for attorney Yehuda Weinstein in a drawer, what would you say?

"That his true challenge is not for people to agree or disagree with him, but for them to know that he made his decisions on the basis of his belief and on the basis of his best professional judgment. If he tries to please everyone, he will end up pleasing no one. So he must not try to please the government or the public or the media or anyone else."

In short, not to please?

"Not to please. The only thing you need to please is your conscience. So you can look in the mirror and say to yourself: I did things according to my best judgment and understanding."

And you, Meni Mazuz, did you act according to your best judgment and understanding?

"I made quite a few difficult decisions during my term as attorney general. I assume that I also made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. But the decisions of which I am especially proud are the ones I made against the current. I did not please anyone. Accordingly, as I leave this room, I am fully at peace with myself." W