Corridors of Power / Overruling the Rule-of-law Gang

1. Dispelling the darkness

Meni Mazuz does not appear at cabinet meetings. Unlike his predecessors, he makes do with submitting written opinions to the government regarding the issues on its agenda. Only when a specific question requiring his involvement is being discussed does he come, lay out his position and then leave. Mazuz seems to want to keep his distance from the captains of the state in order to maintain pure objectivity. Ministers who avail themselves of his services describe him as thoughtful, efficient and fair. Some see him as someone who came from the outside, did not integrate with the establishment and so remained foreign to it. They see this as a big advantage that enables him to observe the systems of government and discern their weaknesses, including within his own "home" - the Justice Ministry.

This is an optimistic assessment that paints Mazuz as a true prophet come to dispel the darkness. There is also an opposite view, which has been expressed in recent days by prominent jurists familiar with the halls of the State Prosecutor's Office and the government; on Tuesday evening, these people felt like an atomic bomb had fallen on them. As one of them puts it: With one hand, Mazuz wiped out decades of hard work in which staff in the State Prosecutor's Office were taught not to cower before authority and not to refrain from pursuing the full extent of the law with public figures suspected of crimes.

The cat was let out of the bag when Mazuz met with journalists after having read his decision. The attorney general appeared to accept the arguments of criminals like Aryeh Deri about the State Prosecutor's Office being "the rule-of-law gang." Mazuz accused former State Prosecutor Edna Arbel and her colleagues of setting themselves a target - putting Sharon, father and son, on trial - and of bending the evidence to attain their objective. Someone who would be involved in such a thing ought to be headed for the defendant's bench and not a seat on the Supreme Court. In rotten regimes, the law enforcement authorities are tainted by providing cover to corrupt politicians, while the fault Mazuz found with the State Attorney is part of an uncompromising pursuit of justice.

Yet even if one presumes that he reached his conclusions in good faith, one cannot help but wonder at his judgment: Why didn't he understand that by leveling these accusations at Arbel and her staff, he was undermining the cogency of his reasoned opinion. It makes him come across as someone who set himself a target - refuting her conclusions - rather than examining the case solely on its merits. Why didn't he find the right balance between his anger at Arbel for trying to impose her opinion on him by leaving her draft indictment on his desk and the severe impact his outburst will have on the public's trust in the State Prosecutor and the Supreme Court? After all, isn't showing sound judgment the first test of an attorney general?

2. The age of innocence

Mazuz's decision is full of gaps. After reading it, noted criminal law expert Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer said yesterday that it could well have led to the opposite conclusion. Academics in the legal field believe that some of Mazuz's conclusions are not incontrovertibly supported by the evidence, and they question what appears to be his acceptance at face value of the testimonies of Ariel Sharon and Gilad Sharon. In this view, Mazuz is showing traces of a syndrome that affects more than a few judges: They place excessive trust in the words of VIPs and do not subject them to the same type of scrutiny as they would the testimony of ordinary citizens.

Mazuz's opinion shows him to be someone whose concepts of governmental norms give a seal of approval to behavior that, while not criminal, is still corrupt. He didn't ask himself why David Appel chose to shower Gilad Sharon - of all people - with hundreds of thousands of dollars; his mind was put at ease on that one by the fact that others involved in the Greek island project were also very handsomely remunerated. He ignored the principle of "cast your bread upon the waters" inherent in the years-long acquaintance between Appel and Ariel Sharon, and instead was satisfied to discover that the time when the developer gave money to Gilad Sharon coincided with the time his father was in the opposition. Most egregious of all - Mazuz paints a picture in which Sharon the father and Sharon the son are the completely innocent victims of a State Prosecutor who wronged them by casting suspicion on them for exploiting their status to enrich themselves. His opinion does not deal in nuances: He does not vacillate over whether the prosecution had the ability to prove criminal intent. His verdict is unequivocal - None of it ever happened: There were no inappropriate ties, no hidden intent, it was a `kosher' business deal and the Sharon family's involvement was wholly innocent.

Numerous character traits, some more flattering and some less so, can be ascribed to Ariel Sharon. Innocent he is not. Whoever portrays his behavior and that of his son in their connections with Appel this way is showing that he's the innocent one.

3. Keeping promises

In the past two weeks, Brigadier General (res.) Baruch Spiegel, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's representative, has met with U.S. ambassador Dan Kurtzer and some of his staff. They've been discussing ways to further solidify Israel's commitment to the administration in Washington to demarcate the limits of construction in West Bank settlements. At their meetings, they've been comparing aerial photographs and trying to come up with agreed-upon lines. The word from the Defense Ministry this week was that this is very exacting work that will take time to complete - i.e., Israel is interested in stalling.

The commitment is included in the documents that President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon exchanged on the formal occasion about two months ago when the president declared his support for the disengagement plan. The letter that Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weisglass gave to U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice two months ago said that settlement expansion would be limited to the "building line" and that "every effort will be made in the coming days to sharpen the definition of the construction borders." Weeks passed and there was no sign of the promised effort. Jerusalem started picking up signals of discontent on the part of the American administration: In talks between members of the National Security Council and the Israeli embassy in Washington, as well as with Jewish leaders and visitors from Israel, anger was expressed at Sharon for not keeping his word. Jerusalem tried to rebuff the pressure by saying that Sharon was preoccupied with preparations to evacuate all the settlements in Gaza plus four in the northern West Bank, so why pester him now with a secondary matter like demarcating the building line? But the administration remained firm in its demand.

More understanding for the prime minister's position was forthcoming from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. According to reports that reached Jerusalem, Ambassador Kurtzer asked his superiors to take note of Sharon's political difficulties and of the effort he made to get the disengagement plan passed by the government. But the White House was unswayed and insisted that Sharon must live up to all of his commitments, both in terms of dismantling illegal outposts and in terms of the building line.

Sharon is calculating his moves vis-a-vis the U.S. so as to ensure the continuation of its support for the disengagement plan and to minimize as much as possible the political damage that it is causing him. His handling of the matter of limiting construction in the settlements provides a microcosm of his thinking: Delay as much as possible moves that threaten the continued development of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but prevent complaints from the Americans that he is breaking promises. Among other things, Israel needs American backing these days in order to avoid European involvement in the security arrangements that will be introduced in Gaza following the pullout (if it really happens). Officials in Jerusalem perceive an international effort (on the part of the European Union, the UN and the Quartet) to get a foothold in Gaza and establish a presence there. Such a development would mean the realization of the Israeli nightmare of internationalization of the conflict. According to the Israeli plan, the international community's role in Gaza will be confined to economic patronage, nor will it have any security or diplomatic aspect.

Israel is resorting to two means in order to thwart European designs on Gaza: an American flak jacket and an Egyptian buffer. The role of the United States is to convince Europe and the UN not to intervene, for now, in Israeli moves in the Gaza Strip, and Egypt's role is to supply the security basis that will render international involvement superfluous. Israel is currently dependent on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak: How seriously will he act to control the threat to Israel entailed in weapons smuggling from Sinai and a continuation of terror attacks from Gaza? And to what extent will he act to ensure order in the evacuated territory until a credible Palestinian security mechanism is established? President Mubarak and his emissary, Omar Suleiman, sound serious and resolute to their Israeli interlocutors, but the latter are also reminding themselves that the proof will be in actions, not words.