(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman made it clear this week that he would reduce the duties of the next attorney-general after Menahem Mazuz and hinted that he would divide the position into two separate ones.
Neeman was speaking at an Israeli Democracy Institute symposium which also included Mazuz, retired Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, retired Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Zamir and attorney Dan Avi-Yitzhak.
Last year, Avi-Yitzhak drafted a bill on behalf of former justice minister Daniel Friedmann calling for the appointment of two different people - one to serve as the chief prosecutor and one to serve as legal adviser to the government - instead of a single attorney-general in charge of both functions.
Friedmann's bill triggered a sharp dispute between those who favored the reform and those opposed to it, including Mazuz, who spoke out strongly against it.
"There is a golden, middle path," Neeman told the members of the panel. "There is no question that the existing situation is undesirable and that splitting the positions is also undesirable."
Earlier, Neeman said he preferred to use the word "divide" rather than "split" in talking about the reform he might be considering.
Neeman explained why he thought the existing situation had to be changed because the attorney-general's burden was so much heavier than it had been in the past.
"In 1999, there were 482 attorneys in the Justice Ministry and 740 in the rest of the government service," he said. "In 2008, there were 844 attorneys in the Justice Ministry and 1,817 in the rest of the government service."
He added that between the years 2000-2008 the number of private member's bills submitted by MKs totaled 10,000. The attorney-general was obliged to prepare an opinion on each one.
"Can one person handle all this?" he asked.
On the other hand, Neeman acknowledged that there appeared to be an overall move among politicians and their supporters to weaken the position of government legal advisers in general. He recalled the private member's bill proposed by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) to allow ministers to hire and fire the legal advisers to their ministries and said these individual moves created the impression of "slicing the salami piece by piece."
All in all, however, Neeman indicated that he believed the two roles of the attorney-general should be divided. For example, Friedmann's bill recommended allowing the government to ignore the legal opinion of the legal adviser whenever it wanted. Neeman said that as long as the legal adviser could not indict ministers, he would see to it that the legal adviser's opinions were binding on the government.
He also said that if he decided to divide the two jobs, he would do so by legislation.
Mazuz gave a list of reasons to explain why he opposed splitting the post in two. He said that dealing with crime often requires a holistic approach in which both roles of the attorney-general come into play.
For example, in the wake of the allegations against Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) for making appointments to his ministry based on political considerations, the attorney-general both indicted him in his capacity as chief prosecutor, and issued regulations in his capacity as government legal adviser prohibiting ministers from hearing requests by members of their parties' central committees or other election bodies for civil service jobs.
He added that there was more to the battle against political corruption than indicting errant politicians. Much of the battle was conducted by the attorney-general in his capacity as legal adviser to offices of the ministers.
He further argued that while the prosecution is single-minded in its mission to prosecute suspects, the attorney-general, who, along with the state attorney makes the final decision on whether to indict or not, has a much broader perspective.
He denied that there was a conflict of interests between his role as adviser to the government and his role as prosecutor of ministers.
"It isn't comfortable working opposite a minister or prime minister who is under investigation," he said. "But the influence of this on the work itself is very marginal. Furthermore, most of the ministers are not under investigation."
Mazuz warned that "in the current realities, the split will weaken the attorney-general drastically, especially his capacity as adviser to the government, but also his capacity as prosecutor in the struggle against corruption."
He also warned that even if this was not the intent, the job of government legal adviser would become politicized. Currently, the fact that the attorney-general was also chief prosecutor helped keep it independent.
Hebrew University law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer strongly supported the division of the two responsibilities, but said he would oppose any proposal that weakened the functioning of the two positions.