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.