(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
If Israeli journalists were perfectly honest, they would admit they have a lot to thank Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz for.
To a great extent, ever since news broke of the plea bargain the prosecutor's office had reached with Moshe Katsav, Mazuz has been taking the rap for the media's sins. In this year-long saga, far from watching dispassionately from the sidelines, the press has from the start acted as a catalyst and energetic cheerleader. This, as some commentators have already pointed out, has transformed "the Katsav case" into "the Mazuz case," with the now-former president having become an almost irrelevant figure. But very few in the fourth estate have admitted that it should also be forced now into a reckoning of its own.
The story broke last July when Channel 2 reported that the president had lodged a complaint with Mazuz against a former staffer he claimed was blackmailing him. The tables were quickly turned on Katsav by the staffer, subsequently familiar as "A" from Beit Hanassi, when she accused him of systematically raping her and when a series of women emerged with similar accusations.
For most of the way, the press was a step ahead of the police and state attorneys in unearthing new victims and their versions, though those institutions, too, were quick to get in on the act with the usual leaks and briefings.
Yes, the press was doing its job; without the reporters' initiative, Katsav could well have been retiring next week with his reputation intact and the goings-on in the various stations of his career still under wraps. But at an early stage, most of the media, along with the various law and order departments, took a side.
The fact that all the parties involved - the president and his battery of lawyers and media advisers, the police, the attorneys, and even some of the alleged victims with their media- hungry lawyers - had turned the case into a free-for-all public mud-fight didn't prompt many journalists to pause and take a step backward, distancing themselves from the fray. Most were content to become partisans, including one senior correspondent who even organized a meeting between "A" and Shelly Yacimovich; the MK rewarded him with an exclusive interview.
Ultimately, the media has an easier job than the prosecutors, having to clear a lower threshold of evidence before issuing its verdict through publishing. Doesn't that also mean journalists should be more careful? How should news organizations act in a case where reporters are convinced of the veracity of charges that might never be heard in a court of law? If the circumstances had been slightly different, these questions might have been debated more seriously following the plea bargain. But Mazuz saved us from that.
The attorney-general's decision to write and reveal a preliminary indictment including charges of rape, and his public statements that there was sufficient evidence to press this charge, rendered him the senior culprit when it turned out just how inflated those expectations were. With a great degree of justification, Mazuz was blamed for botching the case when we saw just how meager the actual charge sheet turned out to be, the more so as senior members of his team had warned him months ago that the case was too shaky.
Mazuz not only made himself an easy target for the press, frustrated at being cheated out of the sensational court case it had been promising itself, but he also cleared the ground for the rare possibility that the Supreme Court might actually strike down a plea bargain. On its own, the deal reached between the attorney-general's office and Katsav would likely have withstood legal challenges, but things might be different given the environment created over past months by Mazuz and the press.
As constitutional expert Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Shaarei Mishpat Law College, says, "This [appeals process] is just as much about what surrounded the case as the actual legal merits." Hacohen is representing the Kolech religious feminist movement, one of the groups petitioning the Supreme Court against Mazuz and the plea bargain. The basic claim being made by the plaintiffs is that, after all that has been said and done, not least by Mazuz himself, this case can now only be properly laid to rest in a full trial.
Mazuz and his advisers were expecting some criticism of the plea bargain, but the vehemence of the public reaction has shocked them. Some of the attorneys only made matters worse when they tried to explain that the preliminary indictment had actually been written to manipulate Katsav and his defense team. Then, of all places, Mazuz chose Channel 2's "Meet the Press" to state his case. Three journalists, all of whom had cheered him along over the last year, tormented him relentlessly. The normally confident AG looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an onrushing SUV.
The Justice Ministry went into emergency damage-limitation mode. Mazuz's media-shy but persuasive special assistant, Raz Nizri, made a rare appearance, arguing that his boss was actually a hero to take such an unpopular decision. Deputy State Attorney Shai Nitzan tried to make amends by admitting that while "there was no mistake in the decision [on the plea bargain] itself, perhaps we could have done a better job of explaining in January."
Whatever the merits of the petitions, most observers believe that the Supreme Court will find a way of extricating Mazuz from the trap he walked into. A legal establishment facing so many threats to its powers, not least from the justice minister himself, these observers argue, can hardly afford to risk the fallout from intervention in the attorney-general's decision-making process, and the petitions will thus be denied.
Yet there are also those who believe that Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch and her colleagues view Mazuz as a failed champion, and that they might humiliate him in the hope that he will resign and give them a successor made of sterner stuff.
"Of course he should resign," said a lawyer in the Jerusalem district attorney's office that was in charge of the investigation, speaking this weekend. Mazuz and his team "haven't even explained to us why they signed the deal. But then, who resigns in this country?"