Calls for Systemic Shakeup after Sharon’s Exoneration

Israel’s political and legal community is in uproar since attorney- general Manny Mazuz announced Tuesday, June 15, he had decided to drop bribes charges against prime minister Ariel Sharon and his son Gilead. Most of the fuss centered on the harsh criticism he leveled against the way the case was handled by former state prosecutor-turned-high court justice Edna Arbel. In particular, he blasted her insistence on an indictment although the case was too weak on evidence to hope for a conviction.
The new attorney-general thus made his debut with a frontal assault on one of Israel’s key power strongholds – the high court of justice-state prosecution interface.
President Katzav commended him for his courage and honesty in daring to find fault with the “holy of holies.” The state prosecution circulated among its 700 attorneys a petition for Mazuz’s apology. And no wonder. He did what no critic had ever ventured to do before. He accused the ex-prosecutor of first “marking her target,” then tailoring the dossier and her recommendations to fit. Arbel was described as dropping and replacing attorneys who took issue with her approach as well as using selected leaks to the press to stiffen an unsupported case by influencing the public. Mazuz included the media in his condemnation, accusing newspapers and television of bias and misrepresenting the facts for the sake of a predetermined campaign against the Sharons rather than a crusade against corruption in high places.
Weak cases and distorted coverage do not advance the war against corruption but betray it, he stressed.
The Movement for Quality Government petitioned High Court to overturn the attorney-general’s decision to close the Sharon file, charging him with stepping outside his authority and gravely prejudicing the principle of equality before the law. The group’s demand to exhibit Arbel’s recommended indictment was instantly accepted. The attorney general announced the document would be part of the state’s response to the petition and also made available to the media.
Within 24 hours, the Sharon case had metamorphosed into the Arbel cause celebre, releasing a flood of pent-up resentment that came closer than ever before to shaking the august pillars of Israel’s high court of justice, a great power in the land – but not the only one. On the warpath in the wake of the new-broom attorney general are a collection of religious factions, the main body of Likud (deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert called the prosecutors and jurists “oligarchs who usurped authority to run the country in place of the corrupt politicians.”) and settlers, all groups who have long felt shut out from the true course of justice by an insider legal body with its own agenda.
A conviction would have forced Sharon out of office. His exoneration boosts his political standing again after pushing his disengagement plan through the government. He now has the freedom to co-opt Labor to his government coalition – or carry out a different kind of reshuffle.
Michael Eytan (Likud), head of the Knesset constitution committee, called for a comprehensive inquiry into the former prosecutor’s conduct in general to establish if her handling of the Sharon case was a one-off or in keeping with prosecution policy under her leadership.
Two Knesset members Yahalom (NRP) and Ardon (Likud) want Arbel’s recent appointment to the high court suspended until her professionalism and integrity are scrutinized. KM Porusch (ultra-religious Aguda) asked the police to investigate a charge that she conspired to frame the prime minister.
Left-wing Meretz KM Yossi Sarid demanded a tougher test: he proposed indicting Arbel and the four attorneys who worked with her on the case on the criminal charge of conspiring to incriminate a prime minister. Either they are found guilty as charged, or Mazuz would take the rap for wrongfully accusing Justice Arbel.
At least two parliamentary committees will debate the issue next week.
The attorney-general is being quietly applauded by another enemy of the entrenched prosecution-high-court in-group. Israel has 27,000 lawyers, too many of whom are unemployed. Jobs in the state prosecution rarely go to outsiders and, when places fall vacant on the high court bench, the state prosecution is automatically tapped first, leaving the private and academic sectors of the legal profession out in the cold.
Arbel’s position as state prosecutor has not been filled in the two months since her appointment to the high court. The entire legal profession is watching to see whom Mazuz will select for the key job, as a pointer to whether he means to follow up his earthquake with a genuine shakeup. Discrediting Arbel and her target-first methods of building a case may be the attorney-general’s first step towards removing a long-reigning in-group and its dominant agenda and letting in a gust of fresh air.

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