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Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann crossed swords for the first time in public on Monday over Friedmann's intention to give politicians much greater leeway in appointing the next state attorney.
Speaking at the annual Bar Association conference in Eilat, Mazuz said, "The appointment of the state attorney must be free of all political intervention. The job of the state attorney is entirely professional. He is the chief prosecutor and does not conduct a dialogue with the Knesset."
Stung by the public criticism, Friedmann immediately announced that he would hold an impromptu press conference, where he retaliated with a personal swipe at Mazuz.
"The attorney-general put the previous justice minister on trial," he told the reporters. "So far, he has only criticized me. I consider myself lucky."
Although the tensions between Mazuz and Friedmann are not a secret in the legal community, Monday's comments by the attorney-general, and the sarcastic response by the justice minister, mark the first time that the matter has turned into a public feud.
Each man accused the other of dubious motivations regarding their stand on the issue.
In the last few years, Friedmann has been highly critical of the Supreme Court and the state prosecution. He has accused the latter of being too active in going after public figures. Friedmann wrote a particularly vitriolic column in the Yediot Aharonot daily after the conviction of the predecessor he referred to in his comment to the reporters, Haim Ramon. Ramon was indicted and convicted on charges of forcibly committing an indecent act. Friedmann accused the state prosecution of deliberately going after Ramon and the court for having convicted him.
The dispute between Mazuz and Friedmann relates to the procedures for choosing the state attorney who will replace outgoing State Attorney Eran Shendar this summer.
According to the system that was used to choose Shendar, a professional appointments committee headed by Mazuz was charged with recommending a candidate for the job to the justice minister. It was influenced by the new system adopted to appoint the attorney-general in accordance with the recommendation of a committee headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar. Nevertheless, there is no law determining how the state attorney is to be appointed.
Friedmann wants to change the system that was used to appoint Shendar.
First of all, he wants to be the one to appoint the Supreme Court justice who will sit on the appointments committee instead of the president of the Supreme Court. More importantly, he wants the committee to recommend more than one candidate for the job and to allow the government to select one of them. Most importantly, he wants to empower the government to propose its own candidates for the job, thus bypassing the appointments committee altogether.
In the appointment of Shendar, the committee deferred to the will of Mazuz, who wanted to pick someone he felt he would be able to work with in relative harmony. The relations between his predecessor, Elyakim Rubinstein and the state attorney at the time, Edna Arbel, were rocky and Arbel did not always defer to her senior in the hierarchical chain. Mazuz wanted to make sure this did not happen again.
As a result of the changes that Friedmann wants to introduce, no appointments committee has yet been established to choose Shendar's successor.
"Any attempt on the part of the political echelon to intervene in the process of choosing the state attorney must raise questions about the motivation for doing so," said Mazuz. "There is no good objective reason for political involvement and there is no could reason at this time to change the procedures for choosing the state attorney. This initiative has no objective justification and I don't know what is behind the justice minister's aim, but what he wants to advance is, in my eyes, utterly mistaken and we must not agree to it."
During the press conference, Friedmann was asked about how he and Mazuz got along. "We're still talking," he replied. But he said Mazuz should not have criticized him since he is the attorney-general's superior in the hierarchy. "It is doubly improper when the criticism involves a matter which is due to be discussed in the government, where Mazuz will be free to say whatever he wants," said Friedmann.
He argued that the government had chosen the state attorney for 40 years, adding: "I don't think there was ever corruption in this process." On the other hand, he accused Mazuz of objecting to the changes he wanted to introduce because Mazuz wanted to dictate who Shendar's successor would be.
"We are talking about a candidate who will be chosen by a committee that Mazuz heads," said Friedmann. "It won't be someone that was picked from the entire community of lawyers or off the street. The way Mazuz sees it, the appointments committee should serve as a rubber stamp for him. He'll pick a man and the committee will rubber-stamp his choice. I think that's going a bit far." Earlier in the morning, outgoing Israel Bar chairman Shlomo Cohen blasted Friedmann for allegedly trying to destroy the legal system.
"There is a cultural war raging over the character of Israel as a state of law," he said. "In the darkest and hardest of times, Israel managed to maintain a lively and boisterous democracy. However, what we managed to establish in the hard years, there are those who are now trying to nullify or restrict. The proposals currently being discussed are very worrisome, because it is very hard to build, but very easy to destroy."
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