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And Now for Israel’s Judicial Crisis

18 June 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

For a change of pace, this week Israel enjoyed a judicial crisis. Seemingly under control, security and economics took a back seat. The Government Legal Advisor, Mani Mazuz, decided to close the pending criminal file charging PM Ariel Sharon with taking bribes from David Apel in the “Greek Island” case. In March, former State Prosecutor Edna Arbel (now a Supreme Court Justice) recommended filing criminal charges against the PM. The Government Legal Advisor has the last word, and not only turned down her advice, but sharply criticized her handling of the case.

Furthermore, what was a legal decision has split the country on political lines. Most of the Left and the far Right demand Sharon’s indictment since they want to topple the government, while Sharon’s Likud faction is lining up behind him. Labor leader Shimon Peres congratulated his friend Sharon, and hopes to begin serious negotiations to join the government. Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, responsible for both the state prosecutor and the legal advisor offices, is defending both Mazuz and Arbel, declaring all to be a legitimate legal debate. Unfortunately the sides completely contradict each other. Lapid is from the centrist Shinui faction, obviously wants to grab center ground, is happy Sharon is not indicted (he would lose his job), and must defend Arbel since he lauded her abilities when recommending her for the Supreme Court.

Getting into the actual specifics of the case is too convoluted, hence, the issue of “process” will be reviewed. Twice, in April 2001 and October, 2003, the police “international crimes unit” recommended closing the file due to lack of evidence. Arbel herself, at the end of 2003, concurred with the police recommendation, but reversed her decision in March, just prior to receiving her Supreme Court nomination. At the time there was no government legal advisor since Elyakim Rubenstein resigned (he too, became a Supreme Court Justice) and Mazuz had not yet been appointed. Many are questioning Arbel’s motives and the “process”.

Mazuz, unlike Arbel, is not on expert on criminal law although he was deputy to the previous legal advisor. Arbel’s staff is considered more expert than those chosen by Mazuz. Her staff decided unanimously for indictment, while the Mazuz crew was unanimously against. Arbel added more members to her staff once her decision was made, or so Mazuz believes. The new members were then convinced to support her view. Mazuz handed the file over individually to his staff, and then took the recommendations, all coming up negative.

Left wing politicians and certain civic groups are turning to the Supreme Court, demanding an indictment. Citizens rights groups want clarifications. It appears there will be an almost unprecedented 11 member Supreme Court panel which will review the question of whether to indict or not. The Court itself, is known to be left-liberal-secular.

As a last redress, everyone is hoping the Court will stick to the law and not get involved in politics. If not, the respect accorded to Israel’s legal system will be heavily damaged. And finally, both sides cannot be correct and someone must resign, either Arbel or Mazuz.