The devil's advocate

The Katsav plea bargain allows Attorney-General Mazuz to escape scrutiny.

mazuz 88 (photo credit: )
mazuz 88
(photo credit: )
Moshe Katsav has not so much had his day in court as nearly two years in a kangaroo court. Lynching is outlawed but the modern equivalent, being strung across banner headlines in tabloids, has been his lot ever since the sex scandal story hit the Israeli public in 2006. For all I know, he deserves it. Or he doesn't. None of us really knows what went on behind closed doors between Katsav and the young lady who has become known as "President's Residence 'A'." They are the only two who can say for sure. Since the High Court of Justice on February 26 endorsed the plea bargain between the state prosecution and Katsav, "President's Residence A" has complained she has been denied her chance to tell her side of the story to the bench. On the other hand, she has told her story, slightly more graphic versions each time, in a series of press conferences and interviews at which Katsav (or his lawyers) were not present to make a counterclaim. Katsav, for his part, has publicly denied any evil-doing but accepted a plea bargain relating to much older charges filed by a different woman, "Tourism Ministry A," relieved they did not include rape. Pres. Res. A's lawyer, the very personable Kinneret Barashi, told Yediot Aharonot in its four-page coverage of the case on February 27 that she could not recommend in future cases that a woman file a police complaint when the charges were against a senior public figure. Barashi, unknown until her friend asked for her help in the Katsav case, might not need to practice law full-time much longer. She has already won a spot on Israel Television and has become a media darling. WOMEN'S GROUPS across the country vocally protested the plea bargain, claiming it gave license to sex offenders and would deter victims from seeking justice. Arguably, however, it wasn't so much the plea bargain as the media attention which was the greatest deterrent. Perhaps the whole case - one that so wholly begs to be described by the cliched couplet "sordid affair" - has also put off would-be blackmailers. After all, "PR-pro" A did not rush to the police to complain that the president had attacked her in a brave move to save her sister co-workers from a similar fate. She apparently phoned the president and demanded he pay her large sums of money to buy her silence. Who can possibly be said to win in a case like this one? If anything the winners were Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. Mazuz, perhaps, got off lightest of all. The media, suitably distracted by the ultimate "sexy story," did not investigate who leaked the details of the initial meeting between the president and the attorney-general. As a journalist, I can hardly complain about leaks; as a citizen, I find it highly disturbing that a "private" discussion between the head of state and its top legal adviser should find its way directly to the country's eager press. The plea bargain also lets Mazuz off the hook on the more sensationalist aspects of his handling of the case. The women's groups rightly ask how Mazuz, who himself declared there was enough material to prosecute Katsav for rape, then backed down. Mazuz declared that President's Residence A, not the only witness but certainly the key one, was unreliable and her testimony wouldn't hold up in court. Couldn't he have checked that out before determining that there was cause to prosecute on everything from rape to obstruction of justice in the January 2007 draft indictment? WITH TWO years left of his term, Mazuz's public credibility has been severely battered but at least the High Court, in effect, ruled that he can continue in his post. Had it denied the plea bargain, it would have put an end to Mazuz's career as surely as Katsav's days in the President's Residence will never return. Beinisch, for her part, as the minority opinion in the February 26 hearing, was able to blast the plea bargain knowing her furious explosion would be contained and would not cause any serious damage to the case. (And could only help her standing as a fighter for feminist rights and the defender of victims.) In a legal system in which the justice minister, Daniel Friedmann, is openly at war with the Supreme Court and the legal establishment, Beinisch relishes such victories. It sometimes seems that those in charge of justice in the country are not only keeping score but settling scores. And it's very disconcerting. Plea bargains, after all, are an accepted part of the legal process, as any viewer of Law and Order can tell you. They might be the lesser of two evils, but they serve a function, particularly when without them a criminal could get off scot-free. The ruling means that Katsav, while forced to admit wrongdoing, will not spend time in prison. (It came noticeably just one day before Omri Sharon began serving time for illegal fundraising.) Katsav's career, however, is ruined and his good name such a distant memory that it no longer exists in the minds of most. Contrast this to the case of Haim Ramon who, having been found guilty of forcibly French-kissing a female soldier - on the day that the Second Lebanon War broke out, I would remind you - is now deputy prime minister. Israelis often discuss judicial activism and the so-called "Buzaglo test," the principle that the country's highest personages and most ordinary citizens - the hypothetical defendant Haim Buzaglo - should be judged by the same courtroom standards. Mr. Buzaglo would not have endured what a president had to go through out of the courtroom, however. The Katsav affair has caused immense damage to all women who have been assaulted and are scared to press charges and to all men who have been falsely charged and find themselves also the victim of public sentiment. It has also caused great harm to a legal system already under fire. Since Israel does not have a jury system, the question all Israelis should be asking themselves is who should be the judges in such cases: those in the attorney-general's office and courts, who have the written evidence and testimonies in front of them, or the protesters in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square and elsewhere who have only the tabloids and televised press conferences to inform them? Whatever you might think of the former president, or of politicians, or, indeed, the country's legal establishment and court system, keep in mind that there is a thin line between prosecution and persecution. Once we've crossed it, there's no saying where we'll end up. The learned judges of the High Court of Justice could have ruled out the plea bargain and didn't. The kangaroo court should not jump in and act as an even higher court. There's no justice in that.