JERUSALEM - He is a career civil servant who spent years toiling in obscurity as a lawyer in the Justice Ministry, an unassuming official with little experience in criminal law who now holds the fate of Israel's prime minister in his hands.
It is up to Menachem Mazuz, chosen by Israel's Cabinet in January as the country's 11th attorney general, to decide whether to indict Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on corruption charges, which could force Sharon from office and topple his government.
Israel's Supreme Court added to Sharon's troubles yesterday by requiring his son, Gilad, to turn over to police potentially incriminating tapes and documents related to the case that Mazuz is considering and documents related to a separate investigation involving allegedly illegal campaign contributions.
The landslide re-election that Sharon won 14 months ago seems a distant memory. Opinion polls here show his popularity plummeting, and political rivals are jostling to succeed him should he be forced out of office.
Came from Tunisia
Mazuz will determine what happens next. Born to an impoverished family that emigrated from Tunisia a year after he was born, Mazuz graduated with honors from Hebrew University's law school and rose through the ranks of the Justice Ministry before becoming attorney general.
On Sunday, the state prosecutor recommended that Sharon be charged with bribery for allegedly using his influence five years ago, when he was foreign minister, to help a real estate developer promote a project in Greece.
The prosecutor, Edna Arbel, delivered to Mazuz a sealed envelope containing a draft indictment and then flew away for a vacation in the United States, leaving the new attorney general with a the most difficult, politically charged decision of his short career.
"What a welcome," said Amnon Rubinstein, dean of the law school at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and a former minister of justice. "I think he is an excellent man of total integrity and independence."
"He came from an underprivileged class, both ethnically and economically, and he overcame many obstacles to have a brilliant career," Rubinstein said. "Whatever position he takes, he will be subject to public criticism."
An inherited case
Mazuz inherited the Sharon case from Eliyakim Rubinstein, and took office four days after the real estate developer, David Appel, was indicted on charges of bribing Sharon.
Moshe Negbi, a legal commentator for Israel Radio and a lecturer on constitutional law at Hebrew University, said it will be difficult for Mazuz to ignore the state prosecutor's recommendation now that it is public.
"It will be very hard not to indict Sharon in this case," Negbi said in an interview. He noted, however, that little is known about Mazuz, who served as a deputy attorney general for 10 years but spent most of his time drafting legal opinions on administrative law issues.
"We don't have any record of him in criminal cases," Negbi said. "It's really tough to predict what will happen."
Mazuz has given no indication of what he might do, though officials in his office said they expect him to act within two months. When he took office, Mazuz told reporters that he would rule on Sharon "with all the required caution" - indicating a slow, careful and methodical approach, one that the pub-
lic attention might not allow.
Mazuz, 48, grew up with nine brothers and sisters in Netivo, in the Negev desert - then a ramshackle squatter's town for North African immigrants and now a small middle-class city of about 25,000.
His father had been a rabbi in Tunis and ran a bookstore in Netivot. The younger Mazuz attended religious school in Jerusalem. He served in the armored corps of the Israeli army before attending law school.
Mazuz, who has a wife and two daughters, spent the past 20 years working in public service law with the Justice Ministry. From 1991 to 1995, he was one of Israel's legal advisers on peace negotiations with Jordan and the Palestinians.
Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, a member of the centrist Shinui Party, chose Mazuz to succeed the retiring Eliyakim Rubinstein for Israel's top law enforcement post. Mazuz easily won Cabinet approval, with 20 ministers voting in his favor. Three ministers abstained, including Sharon and his vice premier, Ehud Olmert, who are targets of the criminal investigation and wanted to avoid conflict of interest charges. No one voted against him.
The case against Sharon stems from the indictment of real estate developer Appel, who was charged with paying Sharon about $700,000 to convince Greek authorities to rezone island property to allow Appel to develop a resort.
The indictment says that in 1999 Appel hired Gilad Sharon as a $10,000-a-month marketing consultant, and then wanted Gilad to persuade his father to invite Greek officials to Israel to "impress them and get them to favor the project."
Appel is charged with paying for the mayor of Athens to visit Jerusalem in July 1999 and dine with Sharon and Olmert, who was then Jerusalem's mayor. In return, the indictment says, Appel recruited election workers on Sharon's behalf and paid the dues for new members of Sharon's Likud Party.
The resort was never built, and though the indictment implies wrongdoing on Sharon's part, it offers no direct evidence of his taking actions on Appel's behalf.
Yesterday, the newspaper Haaretz quoted what it said were transcripts from police wiretaps on Appel's phone. The wiretaps, the newspaper reported, recorded Appel telling Sharon, "Your son is going to earn a lot of money." Sharon's response, according to the newspaper, was: "The island is in our hands."
Legal experts say that the case against Sharon remains complicated and tenuous. The Israeli press quotes Mazuz's aides describing the case as "problematic," and saying that the new attorney general has spent weeks reviewing past bribery cases and consulting experts for guidance.
Since "Appel was charged with giving a bribe to Mr. Sharon," said Negbi, the legal commentator, "it is very tough not to indict the person who allegedly took the bribe. They only way not to indict him is to convince us that he was not aware of the gift or was not aware of the corrupting intent of the gift."
Negbi said the public attention on Mazuz "will make it tough for him to make a decision. People will say, how can an unelected official bring down the government?" But Mazuz's inexperience with criminal law will make it "equally tough for him to ignore the advice of the most knowledgeable people in his own office."
Israeli media yesterday described Mazuz as a quiet, contemplative man who distances himself from politicians and sets a high legal standard for issuing indictments.
Legal experts are divided on whether Sharon is lawfully required to step down from office should he be indicted. Sharon has denied wrongdoing and vowed to not relinquish his post. But staying on that might become impossible because of actions by his partners in the coalition government.
The Shinui Party has threatened to resign from the government if Sharon is indicted and refuses to step down. Shinui's departure would topple the government and force new elections.
Waiting to take over as leader of Sharon's Likud party are his rivals, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.