A Historic Role for Mazuz

Israel is suffering from a leadership vacuum. Our ministers and MKs are slaves of primaries and, even worse, of vested interests.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz is right: Corruption is not inevitable. It can be fought. He's got his work cut out for him

Plenty of pundits celebrated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent resignation announcement as a victory for public norms. But that may be wishful thinking. A great many scandals involving the prime minister came to light in the last year. Even if none end in a conviction, however, the facts alone - at least, the uncontested ones - attest to corrupt practices.

Olmert and his advisers haven't been bothered by the multiplicity of scandals. One of the most arrogant, violent and clever prime ministers we've ever had, Olmert doesn't care about public norms. He has nothing but contempt for them.

Why did he say he would resign? Perhaps because he felt the police were closing in on him, that he wouldn't be able to shake off the double-billed foreign jaunts, that this time he wouldn't be accused of mere "breach of duty" - which doesn't seem to count, in his mind - but of an actual, simple, straightforward crime: fraud under aggravated circumstances.

Now comes the great test of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. Now he has to look in the mirror and remember his role in Ehud Olmert's rise to the top. How, four years ago, he cleared former prime minister Ariel Sharon in the Greek Island affair. If Sharon hadn't gotten away scot-free from all his corruption scandals, Olmert wouldn't have slipped so easily and smoothly into the premier's seat after his predecessor sank into coma. If Mazuz hadn't sent the public the message that Sharon's corruption was tolerable, it's unlikely that a character like Olmert could have reached the highest office in the land. Now Mazuz's time has come.

The temptation to close all the cases against Olmert with a pitiful plea bargain must be great. Olmert has promised to step down from the prime minister's seat, clearing the way for a deal. He'll quit, get a slap on the wrist and in a few months will return in the form of a merry businessman. His message will be clear: A little rot never killed anybody and, barring a little unpleasantness, it won't ruin your career either. At worst you can start a second one.

An expression along the lines of "purge the evil from among you" appears no less than seven times in the Book of Deuteronomy: The purpose of punishment is not vengeance, but to root out evil.

You can't root out evil using a plea bargain or political wheeling and dealing, saying: I quit and we all move on.

The fight against public corruption requires, screams for, a public trial. A long, enervating, difficult trial in which every last piece of information in the Olmert scandals is held up to the light. A trial in which the invoices are scanned, the evidence is reviewed, the witnesses are brought to the stand.

Of course, Olmert could beat the charges, either because he's innocent, because the evidence isn't conclusive, because criminal intent can't be proved or because the police or prosecution were negligent. But the possibility that he'll be found not guilty is not a reason to use against filing charges, or to rush to close a plea bargain. The legal process itself is important, especially when a (former) prime minister is the issue at stake.

Take the example of Shimon Sheves, formerly a director general at the Prime Minister's Office. He was convicted of breach of duty, which means betraying the public trust - of abusing his powerful position to advance his own greater good and that of his friends, too, at the expense of the public.

Sheves' conviction took place after a repeat hearing of the case. As a precondition for holding the hearing, the Supreme Court demanded that the prosecution undertake not to seek hard time for him. That was a historic mistake. The only way to institute new norms for top officials in Israel is through long terms in prison. Only such sentences can prove to the public that the law has teeth and they will clamp down equally on all offenders, regardless of their titles. Only long imprisonment will frighten or deter the thousands of public servants who control the state's resources and the taxpayers' money from breaching the public's trust.

In recent months a number of corrupt politicians and commentators affiliated with people in power have suggested that incumbent prime ministers not be questioned exhaustively, because of the harm this could do to management of the state. But the damage caused to Israeli society and to the rule of law if prime ministers are rendered immune to justice would be worse.

If all the claims against Olmert end up in a plea bargain and a slap on the prime minister's wrist, then we will not only have paid a heavy price in terms of governmental paralysis: We will not even be able to wield the arm of the law against the person who betrayed the public's trust.

Meni Mazuz has a historic role to play in the war on corruption, which is the No. 1 enemy of Israeli society. Our economy cannot advance while corruption reigns. Leadership cannot grow, peace accords cannot be reached, the occupation cannot be ended. Mazuz fidgets uneasily in his seat when responsibility is cast onto his shoulders. He prefers to chatter about "the test of the public."

The attorney general should remember that he's a member of that public. Israel is suffering from a leadership vacuum. Our ministers and Knesset members are slaves of the primaries for the most part and, even worse, of vested interests.

Mazuz, on the other hand, doesn't have to be reelected. His noncontributory pension is assured. He is free to act according to the dictates of his conscience.

You told us, Mazuz, that the fight against corruption is the most important mission we face. Here we stand and await your decision.