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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The fa ade of propriety that has until now typified relations between Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann on the one hand, and the state prosecution and the Supreme Court on the other, was unexpectedly ripped apart this week in a public spat between Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and Friedmann.
Mazuz, the ultimate civil servant who avoids the limelight as much as possible, surprised an audience of lawyers in Eilat when he sharply criticized Friedmann for seeking to change the system that will be used to appoint the next state attorney.
His attack lifted the curtain on an internal fight the two have been waging ever since the current state attorney, Eran Shendar, announced that he would be retiring in July.
Shendar was appointed by the government after being recommended by a search committee headed by Mazuz. It was the first time that the state attorney was chosen this way. Until then, the minister of justice had recommended a candidate to the government. The establishment of a search committee was meant to de-politicize the process as much as possible.
The law does not stipulate how the state attorney should be chosen.
The method used to appoint Shendar was adopted from the one used to choose Mazuz himself. Here, too, a search committee had been established to recommend a candidate to the government from among a list of hopefuls who had either applied or were asked to apply for the job. The system was based on the recommendation of a committee headed by former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar. The government officially adopted the system in a cabinet resolution, although it did not legislate it.
Now, in the case of the state attorney, Friedmann wants to take a few steps backwards. For one thing, he wants the justice minister, rather than the president of the Supreme Court, to appoint the judicial representative to the search committee. Secondly, he wants the search committee to present several recommendations to the government and let it choose among them.
In his comments to the Israel Bar conference in Eilat, Mazuz not only brought the conflict into the open, but went so far as to pointedly question Friedmann's motives for trying to change the system. He insisted that the job of the state attorney was purely professional. As the country's chief prosecutor, the state attorney had nothing to do with politics, he stressed.
Stung by the attack, Friedmann dropped his statesmanlike stance and attacked the attorney general with the type of sarcasm usually used by outside, and essentially powerless, critics of the system, which, of course, Friedmann was until his unexpected appointment to the ministry in February.
He said that given the fact that Mazuz had indicted his predecessor, Haim Ramon, he should consider himself lucky that the attorney-general had only criticized him.
The biting, if not gratuitously nasty, comment, summarized in a nutshell much of Friedmann's view of the state prosecution, the view that he expressed so acidly in some of his columns in Yediot Aharonot over the past few years, but had kept to himself since his appointment.
Friedmann believes that the state prosecution is hyperactive in going after public figures. Indeed, this non-politician has become a most potent champion of politicians precisely at a time when there is an unprecedented amount of corruption among them.
Ramon is one of his cause celebres. In a column he published just before his appointment as justice minister, Friedmann more than hinted that the state prosecution had deliberately been out to get Ramon. "Haim Ramon erred by doing something that was unworthy, but this did not justify trying him on criminal charges," he wrote. "The attorney-general and the state attorney erred in indicting him without sufficient grounds. It is possible that had it been someone else, they would not have filed an indictment on the basis of such flimsy evidence."
THE ATTACK on Mazuz over Ramon is part of a wider conspiracy theory that Friedmann has developed regarding the conduct of the state prosecution. He repeatedly refers to two other cases in which he suspects that the state prosecution deliberately thwarted the prime minister's choice of justice minister. The first involves Ya'acov Ne'eman, who was appointed justice minister by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Not long afterwards, the state attorney ordered an investigation of Ne'eman, who was subsequently indicted and then acquitted by the court. In the meantime, he left the justice ministry.
The second involves Reuven Rivlin, who was two days away from being sworn in as justice minister when the prosecution ordered a criminal investigation against him.
These affairs are more than just examples of the state prosecution's over-zealousness in wielding its power, according to Friedmann. They are instances in which civil servants who were not elected by the people try to place themselves above the elected officials and effectively run the country.
In fact, this is what he accused Mazuz of doing by trying to weaken the power of the government in choosing the next state attorney. He went even farther than that. He accused Mazuz, who was the chairman of the previous search committee and will serve as chairman of the next, of seeking to personally dictate who will be the next state attorney, even though the government will technically appoint him.
There is truth to this accusation. Mazuz did, in fact, personally choose Shendar. After being dissatisfied with the candidates that had applied for the job, he personally approached Shendar and persuaded him to come out of retirement and serve under him.
But in trying to assess the dispute between Mazuz and Friedmann over how to pick the next state attorney, two things should be kept in mind.
The first is the scandal over the appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney-general in 1997. Bar-On, a Likud activist, was appointed by the Likud government headed by Netanyahu. He was recommended to the cabinet by Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, who belonged to the Likud and had articled in Bar-On's office. He was suggested by Shas strongman Aryeh Deri, who thought he could use Bar-On to cut a deal with the Likud whereby the state attorney would stop the legal proceedings against him on corruption charges. In the wake of the scandal, the government appointed the Shamgar Committee to find a better system of choosing the attorney-general which would guarantee a professionally high level and independent appointment. "Better" and "less political" are synonyms in this case. The decision to appoint the state attorney in the same manner recommended by Shamgar was meant to achieve the same end.
The second point to keep in mind is the fact that Mazuz served as deputy attorney-general during the era of attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein and state attorney Edna Arbel. Mazuz was shaken by Arbel's refusal to accept the predominance of Rubinstein in the ministry hierarchy. The tensions and disputes between the two were public knowledge as well. Mazuz was determined not to have to deal with a similar situation. It was not that he wanted a yes-man in the job. He wanted a state attorney who would accept the fact that he was number two in the hierarchy.
One thing is certain. The three years in which Mazuz and Shendar have worked together have been far more harmonious than the three previous years, and not because Mazuz and Shendar did not have to make difficult decisions or because Shendar always agreed with Mazuz.
Given the fact that Mazuz is a classic civil servant who does not seek the limelight, the question remains why he challenged Friedmann in public. After all, as Friedmann pointed out, he could have fought the issue out with the justice minister in the cabinet. But there was something disingenuous in Friedmann's statement. He knows what Mazuz knows: The attorney-general does not stand a chance against Friedmann in a coalition which includes Kadima, Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. It is likely that Mazuz felt his only chance of preventing Friedmann's changes was to turn the issue over to the public.