Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit in his first appearance at the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee since assuming the country’s top legal position in February.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A significant anniversary passed unnoticed last week: one year since Avichai Mandelblit became attorney- general.
Among other issues, his debut year as the nation’s highest law enforcement officer has been marked by two controversies that have threatened to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government: the crisis over the freedom of worship at the Western Wall at the outset of Mandelblit’s term; and, a year later, his repeated declaration that he would not be able to defend the government in a challenge to the constitutionality of the “Settlement Regulation” Law.
The contrast in Mandelblit’s approaches to the two divisive issues illuminates the basic dysfunctionality of the government.
It has failed to serve the cause of civil justice by being paralyzed by ultra-Orthodox ministers determined to prolong a medieval status quo on the one hand, and by the most right-wing elements of the country who are equally determined to advance the settlement movement at any cost to the nation’s international stature and ultimate survival as a democratic, Jewish state.
In the first instance, the compromise proposal for an egalitarian prayer area at the Wall that Mandelblit formulated after two years of study (while he was cabinet secretary) in January 2016 was stymied by Shas and United Torah Judaism threatening to bring down the government.
After setting religious pluralism aside so easily, it was no surprise that the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist ministers would ignore Mandelblit’s warning that the settlement bill was unconstitutional, and would push it through its final vote late on Monday night.
As defenders of Palestinian landowners’ rights in the disputed territories prepare petitions to the High Court against the “legalization” of expropriated property, Mandelblit said he would not defend the state before the court, warning it contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Channel 2 reported on Tuesday that the attorney-general is considering the unprecedented move of testifying against the Knesset in the High Court over the controversial law. He has stated his considered position that the law explicitly affirms government support for illegal wildcat settlement outposts. If he does testify, it would mark yet another unprecedented development in a year that has seen an unprecedented overuse of the term.
In touting the passage of the ill-conceived legislation, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of the Likud issued a heavy-handed warning to the High Court. Ignoring Mandelblit’s determination that it contradicts the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty – because it discriminates against Palestinians, whose land can be expropriated to make way for Jewish settlements – Levin declared that the court should not have the authority to overturn laws made by democratically elected parliamentarians.
“The situation in which everyone waits until a handful of justices who are self-selected behind closed doors decide whether they like the law or not is not democratic and not correct,” he told Israel Radio, calling for “soul-searching” by the bench. “The judicial system must be one based on rules and laws approved by the Knesset,” he said. “The High Court, in the way it is going, ultimately severely damages democracy.”
Mandelblit’s previous service as cabinet secretary to Netanyahu initially engendered doubts as to his independence from his former boss, but his strict upholding of the law, especially during the ongoing criminal investigation of the prime minister, attests to his objectivity.
As the showdown with the government before the High Court looms, Mandelblit is in a key position to influence the outcome of the government’s attempt to abandon some 50 years of indecision with regard to West Bank policy.
He knows that the so-called Regulation Law does not magically allow the Civil Administration to expropriate private property for Israeli settlements – the Civil Administration has always had this power but has wisely refrained from exercising it. Now the law requires it to do so.
Despite Levin’s misgivings, the issue will be decided by the court, apparently without Mandelblit’s assistance.
In the meantime, the attorney-general may have a more crucial decision to make – whether to indict Netanyahu for accepting gifts. For Mandelblit, it’s been an interesting first year.