Former prime minister Ehud Barak sent a jolt through the political system when on Monday he told a television interviewer: "The Sharon family is corrupt to its very foundations, and in any other normal country, Sharon would have no longer been in power."
The remark was made just after Barak had participated in a meeting of his Labor Party's Knesset faction, where he accused his colleagues of losing their party identity and their loyalty to the rule of law as a result of their infatuation with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Barak made these statements against the backdrop of Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's decision last Thursday to indict Sharon's son, MK Omri Sharon, on several felony counts relating to his illegal financing of his father's 1999 campaign for leadership of the Likud. Mazuz declined to indict the prime minister.
In response to Barak's criticism, his party colleagues explained that it isn't their job to attach guilt or innocence to anyone. This job, they said, belongs to the legal system. It is also, of course, the job of the media.
As to the media, in a program on Army Radio Tuesday, journalistic heavyweights Eitan Haber, from Yediot Aharonot and Moti Kirschenbaum, the former head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and current talk show host on Channel 10, readily admitted that the press has been largely silent on the issue of the legal investigations because it doesn't want to disturb Sharon's plan to destroy all Israeli communities in Gaza and northern Samaria.
Haber explained, "The Left, and not only the Left, is as silent as lambs [about Sharon's criminal investigations] because it's convenient for it that he's carrying out his political plan."
Kirschenbaum agreed, saying, "There's no doubt that the media is dealing with the Sharon family with uncharacteristic tenderness because of its empathy toward his diplomatic plans."
So here we have it, the watchdog of Israeli democracy, the Fourth Estate, is willfully ignoring one of its cardinal responsibilities – holding our public officials to standards of proper behavior in order to ensure the proper functioning of our government. And the media is behaving thus because apparently, the Powers That Be hate the Israeli communities in Gaza and northern Samaria more than they love the law.
As Labor leaders Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and MK Avraham Shochat readily explained to Israel Radio Tuesday morning, upholding and enforcing the law is the responsibility of the attorney-general and the courts. As politicians, they said, their job is limited to getting their political plans implemented and this means supporting Sharon's decision to root out all Jews from Gaza and northern Samaria.
Fair enough. At least they have the integrity to admit they will overlook corruption if it serves their political interests.
Unfortunately, it would seem that Mazuz, Israel's chief law enforcement officer, shares Ben-Eliezer's and Shochat's sentiments. His decision last week not to indict the prime minister is case in point.
Omri Sharon is accused of setting up fictitious companies in 1999 through which he funneled some NIS 6 million into his father's campaign. The process of moving the money – illegally transferred from abroad – and its use to fund various campaign activities, was a day-to-day process. Omri paid service providers with checks from Annex Research, a fictitious company (registered for him by Sharon's diplomatic representative and personal attorney Dov Weisglass).
He then asked these service providers to equip him with fraudulent receipts in exchange for these checks. Omri lied under oath about these payments. He also carried out these felonious activities in his official capacity as his father's campaign chairman, while living intermittently with his father at their Sycamore Ranch – and updating him daily on the progress of the campaign.
According to the Political Parties Law, a candidate for office is responsible for all activities that take place during the course of his campaign. The burden of proving a candidate's lack of culpability for criminal activities that were carried out by his campaign workers rests, according to the law, on the candidate, not on the police or the state prosecutors.
In Sharon's case, the prime minister did not actively prove his lack of culpability; he merely denied knowledge of the criminal activities and claimed that he instructed his son to act lawfully.
On the one hand, this passive, declaratory defense does not meet the dictates of the law. On the other, it strains credulity to believe that Sharon had no idea what his son was doing. NIS 6 million is a lot of money. Sharon has a reputation as a micro-manager. Is it reasonable to credit his statement that he never once asked his son where all this money had come from?
Mazuz justified his decision to clear the prime minister by arguing that there was insufficient evidence to indict him. But again, this is impossible, for if there is sufficient evidence to indict Omri Sharon, then there must be sufficient evidence to indict Ariel Sharon. Again, according to the law, the candidate is criminally culpable for any illegal activities that are carried out in the course of his campaign unless he actively proves he had no knowledge of what was happening.
As Haaretz legal commentator Zev Segal put it, in acting with such leniency against Sharon – in apparent contravention of the law – Mazuz "has turned into the prime minister's defense attorney."
WHY WOULD Mazuz do this?
In Israel's loaded political environment it is difficult to escape the feeling that in preferring the political survival of the prime minister to the dictates of the law he is sworn to uphold and enforce, Mazuz, like the media, is acting on his political sympathies rather than on his professional responsibilities.
This suspicion is strengthened when one notes Mazuz's unrelenting campaign to have Likud central committee member Moshe Feiglin barred from running for Knesset.
In an almost unprecedented move, Mazuz Monday petitioned the High Court of Justice to overturn Justice Jacob Turkel's decision to allow Feiglin to run for office. Feiglin was convicted of sedition, publishing seditious materials and conducting illegal gatherings when, as leader of the Zo Artzeinu movement in 1995, he led mass protests against the agreement to transfer Judea and Samaria to the PLO. Feiglin since joined the Likud and formed the Manhigut Yehudit faction inside the party which Sharon has spent the better part of the past two years trying to purge from the party because its members object to his policies.
In arguing against Turkel's decision, Mazuz wrote that the court should overturn the decision "especially in light of today's flammable circumstances, the shrillness of the public debate – which is expected to deteriorate even further – and the implications involved in letting [Turkel's] ruling stand in terms of the unconstructive message it conveys to the public."
It is unclear where the legal argument is here. It is not Mazuz's job to worry about the shrillness of debate. And what is the statute that discusses the need for courts of law to squelch "unconstructive" messages? For that matter, where is the legal definition of an "unconstructive message?"
Furthermore, Mazuz's pursuit of Feiglin is not an isolated action, which would indicate that his political views dictate how he enforces or fails to enforce the law.
This week, two interesting stories emerged that, one could assume, would capture the attention of a nonpartisan attorney-general.
The first was a Ma'ariv report on Sunday
according to which a police agent provocateur has been disseminating incendiary political material – such as bumper stickers saying, "Sharon, Lily [his late wife] is waiting for you."
This is one of the messages that the media has latched onto in its hysterical offensive against right-wing incitement. Yet here, it works out that rather than emanating from Sharon's political opponents, it is emanating from the police. This would appear to be an egregious abuse of authority on the part of the police, and one that bears investigation. But to date, Mazuz has not said a word about it.
The second was the news magazine Koteret's cover story this month. In an investigative report, the magazine alleged that in financing his campaign for leadership of the Yahad (Meretz) party, far-Left politician Yossi Beilin illegally used funds donated by the EU. The report claims that Beilin illegally transferred funds from his EU-financed "Geneva Initiative" to his political campaign.
The magazine came out a couple of weeks ago. It would seem that Mazuz might have taken an interest in the story, given that former justice minister Beilin was largely responsible for promoting Mazuz to a leadership position in the ministry. But again, not a word has passed through his lips about Beilin's reported criminal activities.
It is Supreme Court President Aharon Barak who has done so much in recent years to involve the court with the day-to-day running of Israel – and who, since his tenure as attorney-general, has been the prime mover behind the realignment of the office of the attorney-general with judicial rather than the executive branch of government. Barak justified this state of affairs by claiming that the attorney-general's subordination to elected officials prevented him from carrying out his duty as chief law enforcement officer in a dispassionate, independent and professional manner.
Unfortunately, from Mazuz's behavior, it would seem that just the opposite has occurred. The more independent the attorney-general has become from any political authority, the more politicized and less professional the office has become.
There can be no doubt that having a professional and independent state prosecution is an essential component of democratic governance. Unfortunately, what we see is that in the name of "professional independence," it is precisely this component of the prosecution that is disintegrating before our very eyes.
In light of the fact that our media unabashedly admits to willingly surrendering professional standards for political purposes, the absence of a professional prosecution is all the more disturbing.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.