- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

TEL AVIV | You could call him Israel’s Patrick Fitzgerald.

Like the crusading U.S. federal prosecutor in Chicago, Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has built a reputation bringing down politicians.

Although he began his five-year term with a controversial decision to abandon corruption allegations against then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mr. Mazuz has more than compensated by issuing the first corruption indictment against a former prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

As his term comes to a close, he can point to an unprecedented offensive against other politicians suspected of corruption and other abuses, with a scorecard that includes an indictment against a former president, convictions of two former Cabinet members and an indictment against a third.

Mr. Olmert stepped down a year ago amid investigations into charges that he double-billed public agencies for trips, accepted contributions in cash-stuffed envelopes and ignored conflicts of interest in determining government commercial policies. Mr. Olmert has denied the accusations.

Mr. Mazuz’s crusade against corrupt leaders reflects growing outrage in the media and the public over political sleaze.

“He came to power by making [former prime minister] Ariel Sharon kosher. He was chosen to stabilize the system and to overlook corruption, and somehow he’s become a palindrome,” said Gideon Doron, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. “It reflects the political culture. We’ve become very sensitive about corruption.”

Before Mr. Mazuz leaves office, he’ll decide the political fate of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who the police have recommended be charged with money laundering. Though the minister has denied the charges, he has said he’ll resign if he is indicted.

Observers say Mr. Mazuz’s activism reflects several trends behind the uproar: spreading corruption among public servants, demands in the media and among grass-roots Israelis for more accountability, and a legal establishment that has become more assertive.

While Israeli politicians were once more quick to own up to minor misdeeds, the public and the press were less aggressive then about calling out leaders on wrongdoing.

“The attorney general has been buoyed by public’s increasing intolerance of corruption” said Michael Partem, a lawyer and deputy chairman of Israel’s Movement for Quality Government.

“It’s not the outrage that brings hundreds of thousands of people in the street, but throughout the country you can feel the public wants to hold political leaders to higher standard,” he said.

At a June convention of the Israeli Bar Association, Mr. Mazuz warned of an absence of norms and ethics in Israeli politics and government. Correcting that behavior, he argued, requires long-term cultural change which isn’t the sole responsibility of the law enforcement system.

Still, “the legal system must stand on guard, and if government doesn’t put on its gloves, the legal system must consider intervention,” he said.

The offensive has been relentless. Mr. Mazuz and the Israeli state prosecutor won a corruption case against Mr. Olmert’s finance minister, Avraham Hirschenson, for embezzling money from an umbrella labor union. Another Olmert minister, Haim Ramon, was convicted of sexual harassment. And earlier this month, a Tel Aviv district court began hearing rape charges again former president Moshe Katsav.

“I don’t think there are other countries in the world where the people in charge of enforcing the law are so brave,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University.

However, he said that Mr. Mazuz’s decision to prosecute politicians for political appointments was going too far.

Indeed, there are signs that the proliferation of corruption cases is fueling a backlash against the prosecutor and the courts, which are already seen as excessively activist and politically biased.

Knesset member David Rotem, chairman of the parliament’s law and constitution committee who hails from Mr. Lieberman’s ultranationalist political party, accused the legal system of being the domain of secular leftists.

“The legal system belongs to people that live in a certain place, a certain color, and have certain political positions,” he said.

Justice minister Yaakov Neeman, who has formal authority over the attorney general, is considering a constitutional change that would divide the position’s powers — of government counsel and chief prosecutor — between two separate offices. In a political cartoon published in the daily Haaretz newspaper, Mr. Neeman is pushing Mr. Mazuz strapped to a conveyor belt toward a buzz saw.

Meanwhile, Israelis are conflicted on whether the wave of corruption scandals coming to light is a blessing or a curse.

“Of course when you have so many cases of people investigated, indicted and convicted, it’s very bad, but on other hand it’s something to be proud of,” Mr. Diskin said.

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