(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz faced a barrage of criticism and calls for his own resignation on Thursday, for the plea bargain agreement, which he arranged with President Moshe Katsav as part of the state's lengthy and highly public investigation of numerous claims of sexual misconduct.
But legal experts said it was highly unlikely that the High Court would accept petitions to strike down the plea bargain, and that Mazuz could not be forced from office.
Rather than face a trial on charges including two counts of rape, the president agreed to admit to committing an indecent act without consent through the use of pressure, sexual harassment and harassing a witness.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison - but Katsav will not spend a day behind bars, because the state has agreed to a one-year suspended sentence.
Katsav, who was suspended in January, was due to end his full seven-year term of office in two weeks.
Legal experts, MKs and women's groups reacted to Mazuz's announcement of the plea bargain with fierce criticism, shocked by the dramatic reversal in the case.
University of Haifa law professor Emmanuel Gross said he could not understand the drastic turnabout in Mazuz's decision. "I don't understand the reasons for it, the factors involved and certainly not its logic," he said in a TV interview. "From the point of view of someone not directly involved in the affair, this is one of the less attractive days for Israel and the institution of the attorney-general. The turnabout is absolutely illogical and absolutely unreasonable."
Former justice minister Amnon Rubenstein told The Jerusalem Post the decision "will have catastrophic effects in terms of the public belief in the rule of law," and called on the government to establish a commission to review practices in the Attorney-General's office.
Yoram Shachar, professor of Criminal Law at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center, described the plea bargain to the Post as one of the most problematic events in the history of Israeli law enforcement.
Former Tel Aviv University professor Gad Barzilai said that if Katsav's lawyers had presented new evidence that changed Mazuz's mind, then "why had the police, the investigative branches, the senior members of the state prosecution and the attorney-general not uncovered it themselves? Something very improper, to say the least, took place in Mazuz's kingdom; the affair requires a widespread public examination," he wrote in an article on the Ynet Web site.
Meanwhile, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel demanded that Mazuz resign unless he could prove that Katsav's lawyers had presented new evidence to justify the plea bargain arrangement.
The watchdog organization said that "time after time, despite evidence that was sufficient to convince the police and the state prosecutor to put senior elected officials on criminal trial for serious crimes, a decision was made to go very easy on those senior officials."
It is possible that groups or individuals will petition the High Court of Justice to overturn the plea bargain agreement, but experts say it is unlikely that the court will intervene.
And despite the criticism of Mazuz, there is no way to force the attorney-general to resign before his term expires.
The plea bargain indictment is a far cry from the draft charge sheet that, on January 23, Mazuz said he planned to file against Katsav, pending a hearing to be granted the president and his lawyers.
According to the draft indictment, Katsav was to have been charged with two counts of rape regarding a woman identified as the "second Aleph," who worked in the Tourism Ministry when Katsav served as minister.
The draft indictment also included several charges against Katsav for actions allegedly carried out against the "first Aleph," who served as his office manager in the president's residence. The prosecution decided to drop all the charges against Katsav regarding the "first Aleph," and added that the prosecution had decided to do so independent of the plea bargain negotiations with Katsav's attorneys.
The amended indictment that is due to be filed against Katsav on Sunday includes charges involving only two women. Mazuz also agreed to drop a separate charge against the president for giving gifts provided by the state to be given in public affairs to members of his family and friends. Instead, Katsav will repay the state for the value of the gifts.
Katsav's lawyers welcomed Mazuz's decision.
Before the hearing, attorneys Avigdor Feldman and Zion Amir had announced that they would present new evidence to Mazuz. But on Thursday, Feldman said it was not the new evidence that had persuaded the attorney-general to change his mind. Rather, he said, "It was the way we presented the evidence [gathered by the police]. We demonstrated clearly that it did not justify an indictment."
Feldman insisted that Katsav had done nothing criminal and made it clear that the president had agreed to plead guilty for pragmatic reasons only.
"We almost had to use force to persuade the president to plead guilty to the charges because, had he not done so, the prosecution would have filed an indictment including two rape charges," said Feldman. "He would have been acquitted in the end, but he would have gone through the hell of a prolonged trial, media attention, media hullabaloo, sitting on the defendant's dock and facing harsh and humiliating accusations."
Feldman said that, in the plea bargain discussions, he and Amir had first asked Mazuz to drop the case in return for Katsav's resignation.
Mazuz refused, but "in my opinion," continued Feldman, "it would have been better if no indictment were to be filed in court."
During his press conference on Thursday, Mazuz tried to preempt his critics. "The plea bargain arrangement," he said, "achieves the main aims of the investigation in this case. This includes disclosure of the incidents that took place over many years, which also led to their cessation and the acceptance by the president of public and legal responsibility for his deeds."
But Mazuz also admitted that the evidence the state had gathered against Katsav was problematic.
"At the heart of the plea bargain arrangement was the fact that the case was a very complicated one in terms of evidence. There were significant difficulties with the evidence which had an effect on the chances of gaining a conviction.
"We worked on the principle that if we could not reach a plea bargain agreement, we would file the indictment. However, when you file an indictment, you have this or that much chance of winning a conviction. In a plea bargain agreement, you win a guaranteed conviction, even if it is reduced [in scope]."
Mazuz rejected accusations that the investigation and the suspicions against Katsav had yielded insignificant results.
"We have here a situation in which the president of the state is convicted on his own plea of guilt of serious sexual crimes for a series of indecent acts and other crimes involving more than one woman, and another serious criminal act which is not sex-related. This is no simple matter - and if anyone thinks it is a molehill rather than a mountain, I know of no molehills that are so big."
One of the most controversial aspects of Mazuz's decision was to drop all the charges against Katsav with regard to the "first Aleph." It was the alleged threat by the "first Aleph" to Katsav that she would reveal his sexual approaches or other alleged crimes that triggered the entire investigation.
In the draft indictment, the state intended to charge the president with a series of crimes against her, including forbidden intercourse with consent by exploiting his authority in employment or service, committing an indecent act without consent, committing an indecent act by exploiting his authority and sexual harassment.
The "first Aleph" held a press conference Thursday afternoon to protest the attorney-general's decision. During an hour-long presentation, she described Katsav's alleged sexual misconduct against her, charging that he had harassed her for months and eventually turned her into a sex slave. She charged that the prosecution had betrayed her by not including her in the indictment against the president and urged other women not to complain to the law enforcement agencies against sexual offenders because they would not help.
Mazuz explained that the prosecution had decided not to make charges against Katsav with regard to the "first Aleph" because the evidence was complex and contradictory. Nevertheless, he described the relationship between the two as "clearly exceeding those of a purely work relationship, contradicting the sweeping denial of the president. The picture that emerges is one of an improper relationship involving anger, jealousy and ill will."
Nevertheless, Mazuz continued, the investigators could not determine the substance of the relationship and could not prove with the degree of certainty required by the court that it involved criminal deeds.
"Aleph" said at her press conference that she had been told by Jerusalem District Attorney Eli Abarbanel that the prosecution had decided to drop the charges because two women had contradicted her testimony.
Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.