By Larry Gordon
We are busy reading about what the next government in Israel is going to look like. Who will be in power and who will be left loitering on the periphery? There are certainly tough choices the leaders there will have to make. But regardless of who sits in the coalition, these will be largely cosmetic changes as Israel continues on the course it has chartered from its inception in 1948 to this point.
For Moshe Eyal and the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, the outside cosmetic changes are not indicative of any significant internal shifts, as governments come and go. Eyal and his staff of 350 attorneys in Israel are working diligently to execute change from the inside of the infrastructure that makes day-to-day Israel function.
On a visit to New York last week, Eyal cited several areas of Israeli life that his group is focused on. He says that regardless of decisions that are made with great pomp and publicity in the political arena, if the law itself does not support those decisions then they will fail to be implemented and will gradually fade away from the limelight and discussion.
“Just look at what happened during the past year in solid settlement communities like Ulpana (near Bet-El) and Migron,” he says. While the Netanyahu government and probably an overwhelming majority of Knesset members were opposed to forcibly evacuating people from their homes and destroying those homes, the law supported the evacuation and destruction that took place. This is what Moshe Eyal and his group are battling, with gradual but consistent success.
“In today’s political arena, harnessing the full power of the law is a crucial element to any successful activism,” he says. “The fight for Jewish rights in Israel faces fierce opposition from radical pro-Palestinian NGOs supported by the NIF, EU, and the Ford Foundation. In addition, an anti-settler bias must be addressed within the Israeli Supreme Court in order to counter the effects of anti-Israel international tribunals, anti-Zionist academia, and a hesitant Knesset stance on these issues,” he adds.
So while there may be a right-wing government being cooked up today by the political negotiators, the laws that govern the policies of the country are being administered by people with an anti-settler and often anti-religious agenda. This, Eyal points out, is not only true of the oversized government bureaucracy but is a symptom that exists in the judiciary, the police department, the media, and high schools and universities throughout Israel.
So if Israel as a complete entity is going to change, it almost has to be from the bottom up rather than just rearranging ministers at the Cabinet and then downward from there.
Eyal is very encouraged by the progress that his team of lawyers has been able to accomplish of late. One of their proudest accomplishments was the selection of Noam Sohlberg as a justice on the Israeli Supreme Court. Sohlberg, a resident of Alon Shvut, is the first justice to live in the territories of Judea and Samaria. The hope is that the other justices will finally hear from a representative of those communities on matters that impact them directly.
That Israel actually selected a justice who resides over the Green Line sent shock waves through the Israeli judicial system. The unarticulated little secret in Israel is that 46 years after the Six Day War and the liberation of the territories—including Jerusalem and the Golan Heights—establishment Israel has to this point not viewed these areas as realistically part of the state. Now, however, that there is a Supreme Court Justice from that part of the country, the court and indeed the judiciary in general will be forced to deal much differently with issues that affect them.
Arab MK Ahmad Tibi, a nemesis of Israel, said when Sohlberg was chosen to serve on the Supreme Court that he didn’t care about his credentials or ability; all he knew was that “a settler is a settler.” It’s one thing if Tibi says that, but it’s quite another when a majority of Israelis at this point in the history of the country basically feel the same way.
So the Legal Forum keeps on battling quietly and effectively behind the scenes. Another area that Mr. Eyal and the Legal Forum are working on is the Israeli police force, with the objective of changing it from the inside.
For Moshe Eyal’s brother Nachi, the founder of the organization, the project of reshaping the police force is a highly personal one. The low point in relations between the religious or settler communities and the police came in the winter of 2006 in Amona. This was a community, or a so-called illegal outpost, near the settlement of Ofrah, not too far from Jerusalem. Police were called in to forcibly evacuate the community and ended up using unprecedented force against the residents and protesters, which resulted in the public’s faith in the police plunging to an all-time low. Over 200 protesters were hospitalized after the evacuation.
Nachi Eyal, whose son was severely wounded in the clash, has taken upon himself to rectify this reality. He has established a unique framework of cooperation with the police, the objective of which is to ultimately restore the public’s faith in them. The Legal Forum has set up a joint project that involves the enlistment of young men from the National Religious and now from the chareidi communities to receive standard police training. The goal is for the new religious police cadets to someday become commanding officers. Additionally interesting is that until this project was initiated, it was not possible to be on the police force and to be assured that you would not have to work on Shabbos. Now that has changed as well.
On the matter of effecting changes in the law, in a democratic country such as Israel it is a very slow and sometimes painful process. Laws that have been on the books for decades cannot just be erased or revised; it takes a great deal more than that. To the Eyal brothers, the most important step in that direction is the influence they can garner in the procedures that are in place to appoint judges.
The way a judge interprets the law reflects a combination of circumstances that includes his or her education, personal upbringing, political or religious affiliations, and so on. More than anything else, the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel is committed to making the procedures that lead to the appointment of judges more transparent and accessible to the public at large. To that end, the organization’s website has begun featuring significant information about Israel’s sitting judges. The information available includes personal data, professional landmarks, prominent legal decisions, and reports on their professional communications and association with other judges. The objective here is to enhance a judge’s commitment to the citizens and increase levels of transparency.
Too many judicial decisions over the years in Israel have been made without ample explanation and often involve hiding behind archaic or obscure laws on the books since the time of the British Mandate or even Ottoman rule.
Moshe Eyal was in New York for several speaking engagements with Dr. Alan Baker, a member of the Levy Commission and a former adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and a former ambassador of Israel to Canada. The Levy Commission, appointed a few years ago by Prime Minister Netanyahu, was charged with analyzing the Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria from the perspective of international law. In brief, the commission found that the Israeli presence in the territories is legal by these international standards.
The findings released last year shook Israel at its foundation primarily because of the contradictory nature of the Israeli presence over all these years on those territories—including East Jerusalem. The contradiction is that Israel continues to build and populate those territories while accepting the status quo that the international community considers those areas as part of a future Palestinian state.
The Netanyahu government is under increasing pressure to accept and adopt the Levy Commission findings, but has so far stonewalled and resisted doing so because of the obvious controversy involved.
This matter is probably the most significant of the Legal Forum’s undertakings. The resistance to accepting the findings of the commission is being chipped away at slowly but surely. This is the end game, with almost everything else the organization does coming under this heading—making Israel become comfortable with her own legitimacy and existence. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.