(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Menahem Mazuz's term as attorney-general, up until now, can be split roughly into three periods.
The first was dominated by his controversial decision, only a few months after taking office in early 2004, not to press charges against prime minister Ariel Sharon in the Greek Island affair. What characterized that episode was the off-camera briefing he gave to legal reporters in which he attacked Edna Arbel - the former state attorney and just appointed Supreme Court justice - over the way she had handled the case and her recommendation to indict.
Mazuz was setting himself up as the counterbalance to the grande dames of the justice system - Arbel and her predecessor, Dorit Beinisch, who was already preparing to be named Supreme Court president.
Mazuz wanted an end to the bombastic public trials and clashes with politicians. He projected a quiet and industrious image of the State Attorney's Office.
Mazuz proved to be the perfect lawyer for the Sharon administration, both extricating the boss from this investigation and smoothing over the legal bumps of the disengagement plan the following year.
After Sharon left the scene and a new government came along, Mazuz changed his tune. He ordered the police to look into a series of allegations against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other senior politicians, including the president. But perhaps the most traumatic decision for the system was the indictment of justice minister Haim Ramon and his subsequent conviction on what, to many, seemed no more than a misdemeanor.
To the conspiracy theorists, but not only to them, it seemed as if Mazuz had cooperated with the judges to rid themselves of a reformist/mettlesome minister who had threatened their domain. For his part, of course, Mazuz insisted that the decision to indict Ramon, like all his decisions, was one of thorough legal principle.
Mazuz's third period began in April when Prof. Daniel Friedmann was appointed justice minister. At first, the main rivalry was supposed to be between Friedmann and Beinisch, the target of bitter op-ed articles over the years. Mazuz was supposed to be in the middle, or even a cautious supporter of some of Friedmann's reform plans.
But their relationship quickly hit a rough patch when Mazuz refused to defend Friedmann against Supreme Court petitions over his hasty authorization of new rabbinical court judges. Much worse was to come when Friedmann insisted on changing the procedure by which the state attorney, effectively Mazuz's number two, is chosen, giving the politicians more discretion in selecting a candidate.
This was too much for the mild-mannered Mazuz. In a series of interviews and public appearances in recent weeks, he opened up a front against Friedmann. He found ready allies in the environs of the Supreme Court, already incensed over the minister's radical plans for curtailing the its powers. Retired justices flocked to the airwaves to attack Friedmann's attempted interventions.
If it were up to Mazuz, he wouldn't be challenging his minister, precipitating a constitutional near-crisis over the role of the attorney-general. (Is he just another civil servant charged with carrying out the orders of his elected masters, or does he have a special judicial status?) But the last thing Mazuz wants is to go down as the A-G who allowed the office to be diminished. He also has a career to think about after he leaves.
That's why the Friedmann-Mazuz conflict boiled over on Sunday into the question of the appointment of Mazuz's successor, even though the job is not expected to fall vacant for another three years.
State Attorney Eran Shendar is scheduled to leave in less than two months, and both sides realized that whatever changes are made to the rules for the selection of a new state prosecutor will also apply to the choice of Mazuz's successor.
This time, the two backed down and accepted a compromise that gives the politicians a degree of control over the appointments, but leaves the decision on who will head the appointment committee in the hands of the Supreme Court president. Neither side wanted an all-out war.
But Friedmann's battle against the justice establishment is only beginning.
Mazuz's fourth period will be the one in which he decides whether he wants to stick his neck out to fight back, and if so, how far.
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