(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Yesterday, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz tried to paint a picture of justice being served in the plea bargain between state prosecutors and President Moshe Katsav. Yet any relief that may have been gained by ending this sordid episode is, unfortunately, overwhelmed by the bitter price: the sense that our justice system acted precipitously, then let a criminal off the hook.
The original draft indictment, publicly released, accused the president of multiple counts of rape, among a long list of charges. This indictment was presumably based on full faith in the victims' testimony and additional evidence, after exhaustive interrogations of both the complainants and the president.
Then the president was granted a hearing - a second chance to exhaustively present his case, resulting in yesterday's plea bargain in which all the most serious charges were dropped and the president pleaded guilty to charges he claims, contrary to Mazuz, were not sexual in nature, though they carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. In exchange for this admission, Katsav will receive a suspended sentence and fines, meaning not a day in prison or even in community service.
Mazuz, not surprisingly, would not take questions after his presentation. There were too many, and they were too difficult to answer. He said, for example, that one of the reasons for the plea bargain was to spare "the institution of the presidency" and the people of Israel the embarrassment of a trial. But what is more embarrassing, a prosecution that says it is ready to charge the president with rape and then decides not to go to trial, or a trial that would have allowed judges to determine guilt or innocence and mete out appropriate punishment?
Mazuz would have us believe that the outcome is the best of both worlds: an admission of guilt and a conviction without a long messy trial whose outcome was in doubt. But a case can just as easily be made that this is the worst of both worlds: charges of rape, as detailed by the prosecution, hanging in the air, their veracity never to be determined in a court of law, and a punishment bargained out that is grossly disproportionate to the originally alleged crime.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion, given the outcome and Mazuz's own belated admission that the evidence was problematic, that the draft indictment was deliberately inflated as a negotiating tactic. Mazuz fed this impression by arguing that what matters is any conviction, even without a trial, rather than the seriousness of the crimes or the number of counts. But justice is not just about getting the defendant to admit something, but a faith that the system will accuse fairly, determine the truth and punish accordingly; it is not about throwing buckets of mud and seeing what sticks. Did Katsav commit rape, or did the prosecution exaggerate? Who is guilty, the president, our judicial system, or both?
Judicial systems are themselves constantly on trial. Our democracy depends on their credibility. We need to be able to believe that they accuse fairly, and that they neither gratuitously smear public figures nor shrink from bringing those same public figures to justice when necessary. We need to be able to believe that they will go where the evidence takes them, not inflate or deflate charges based on calculations of what courts will do, what the public wants or how it will look.
Mazuz claims he made the brave choice, while the easier course would have been to avoid the criticism he knew would come and go to trial, despite the risks of an acquittal. But if the evidence was not strong enough, why release such a serious draft indictment in the first place? And who are we now to trust, Mazuz then and the police who expressed complete confidence in their evidence, or Mazuz now, trying to imply both that he acted on solid evidence before and that he might well have failed to prove his case in court?
Though Mazuz is trying desperately to show that his mountain did not produce a molehill, it is obvious that Katsav and his lawyers are declaring victory, while key complainants feel they have been utterly betrayed.
Yesterday, Mazuz cited "the public interest in reducing the harm caused to the presidency, and not to President Moshe Katsav, and to the State of Israel's image due to a trial which would have been held for a long period of time with unflattering headlines to the presidency in Israel and in the world." It is curious that the same prosecution that publicly branded the president a rapist is now concerned about headlines.
The tragedy is that Mazuz's decision has now put the judicial system itself in the docket, without lifting the stain from the presidency one whit.