What will be the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Edna Arbel, who retired on Sunday after some 40 years of public service in a ceremony attended by virtually all the top figures who have controlled the state’s legal arena for decades? First, her legacy must be split into at least two eras.
As state attorney from 1996 to 2004, Arbel expanded a revolution against corruption by public officials, which many credit former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak as having started while attorney-general from 1975-1978. Until then, many say public officials had virtual immunity from prosecution.
During her career Arbel indicted or tried to indict – in some cases she was blocked by three different attorneys-general, who accused her of being overly ambitious in targeting public figures – a dazzling list of former officials: Binyamin Netanyahu (during his first term as prime minister), then prime minister Ariel Sharon, former Knesset speaker Ruby Rivlin, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Rafael Eitan (leader of the Tzomet Party blocked by investigation from becoming a minister), former internal security minister Avigdor Kahalani, former justice minister Yaakov Neeman, and former police inspector- general Moshe Mizrahi.
This part of her legacy can certainly empower current State Attorney Shai Nitzan, who though he has not yet made a groundbreaking indictment of his own, has repeatedly signaled loud approval for the state’s efforts to prosecute Olmert and former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski in their current cases.
Arbel was connected to both Barak and to his successor as supreme court president, Dorit Beinisch, at an early stage of her career, working for each of them in different capacities in two major investigations.
One was the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, in which Israel’s Lebanese Phalange allies massacred Palestinians in Lebanon during the First Lebanon War in 1982, and for which the state-sponsored Kahana Commission held then-defense-minister Sharon indirectly responsible, forcing his resignation.
Another was the Egged Bus 300 incident of 1984, in which two of the Palestinian terrorists who took a bus hostage were killed by security forces after they had been captured.
The connection tying her to judicial activism continued into her 10 years as a Supreme Court justice, as she wrote a thundering 9-0 rejection of the state’s migrant policy as violating migrants’ fundamental human rights.
Arbel also joined the court’s majority decision against privatizing aspects of the prison system as undermining oversight and violating human rights.
She was also in the majority in a landmark decision disqualifying various mayors under indictment for corruption from continuing in office until their indictments were resolved.
But Arbel was not afraid to take her views defending human rights into the minority, voting to strike down a law that prevents Israeli-Arabs who marry Palestinians from exercising automatic family unification rights. The law was upheld twice despite Arbel’s vote against it.
Arbel also voted against the court’s majority to uphold the Tal Law, saying that nothing better would come to resolve the issue of integrating ultra-Orthodox Jews into the IDF.
The law was nullified in August 2012 and while it took a long time, a new law to equally share the burden of military service was recently passed, setting higher and mandatory service standards for haredim.
Arbel also was known as a vociferous advocate for women who were victims of violence and sex crimes, with some defense lawyers saying she did not give their clients, the accused offenders, a fair chance when they appealed convictions and sentences.
Where will the court go from here, having lost one of its loudest voices for activism on human rights issues? It appears that Arbel will not be replaced until Supreme Court President Asher Grunis steps down in January 2015, when he, too, reaches the retirement age of 70.
At that point, barring any changes in the law, Deputy Supreme Court President Miriam Naor will take over from Grunis for just under three years, until she retires.
Grunis is among the most conservative justices on the court, whereas Naor has taken many more liberal stances in common with Arbel, Beinisch, and Barak.
So even as the court’s liberal wing loses Arbel, in some ways ending the era of Barak, Beinisch, and Arbel working together, the running of the court will likely pass from a clear conservative bent to a more traditional liberal one.
Naor and Livni are also likely to dominate the choosing of both Grunis’s and Arbel’s replacements.
There is a fair chance that their replacements will either be liberal, or, even if others on the selection committee along with pressure from right-wing ruling political parties stand strong, certainly not more conservative than Grunis and Arbel as a package.
Of course, going forward, Naor will not run the court for long and between now and her retirement in late 2017, the politicians could change the rules to try to put in another conservative Supreme Court president, as they did to crown Grunis.