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Retired Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, near his office in the Supreme Court building (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Retired Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, near his office in the Supreme Court building (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
InterviewFrom Egypt, Jordan peace to pluralism, Rubinstein was there

Israel can trust Mandelblit, says last AG to tackle alleged graft by Netanyahu

‘Of course there is more caution’ when a PM is being investigated, says Elyakim Rubinstein. But the bottom line: It’s all about the evidence

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by Hadas Parush/Flash90

Elyakim Rubinstein seems to have had a quiet, good-natured and principled hand in a bewilderingly diverse range of formative events in Israel over the past 40 years.

On the diplomatic front, he helped negotiate the peace treaty with Egypt, led Israel’s talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation created after the 1991 Madrid peace conference, and, in his most cherished diplomatic role, headed the negotiations that yielded the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.

On the government front, he was cabinet secretary 1986-94 — in the Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin years. And on the legal-judicial front, he was attorney-general 1997-2004 (to prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon), and thereafter a Supreme Court justice until his mandatory retirement, from the vice presidency of the court, aged 70 last year.

As attorney general, Rubinstein demonstrated a commitment to pluralism when backing arrangements for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall and ensuring non-Orthodox representatives gained positions on the Jerusalem municipality’s religious affairs council.

As a Supreme Court justice, he weighed in on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox youths to the IDF (ruling with the majority to strike down the Tal Law that exempted them from service). He prevented bus companies from yielding to ultra-Orthodox pressure to segregate passengers.

Supreme Court justices Salim Joubran (left) and Elyakim Rubinstein during a meeting of the Judicial Selection Committee, at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem, February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

He defended his Christian Arab colleague Salim Joubran when the justice was under fire from the political right for not singing the national anthem ( — “one cannot demand that Arab citizens sing words that do not speak to their hearts and do not reflect their roots,” he opined). He protested the government’s failure to implement the Western Wall pluralistic prayer agreement. He also oversaw the 2013 elections.

I most wanted to speak to him, however, because of the acute challenge currently facing one of his successors — another Tel Aviv-born, Orthodox, former cabinet secretary who now holds the post of attorney-general: Avichai Mandelblit.

Sooner or later — and his critics say it has already taken far too long — Mandelblit will have to decide whether to press charges against the prime minister of Israel in one or more of several corruption cases. And Rubinstein, arguably better than anybody else, knows exactly what Mandelblit is grappling with.

Ronnie Bar-On, who was briefly appointed attorney general at the height of the so-called Bar-On-Hebron affair, and was later finance minister, pictured in the Knesset, August 20. 2007. (Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

In his lengthy stint as the government’s chief legal officer, Rubinstein oversaw the investigation of a serving president, Ezer Weizman, triggering a process that led to Weizman stepping down for failing to report a “gift” from a friend.

He oversaw the investigation of a serving prime minister, Netanyahu, in what became known as the “Bar-On Hebron” influence-peddling affair, closing the case against Netanyahu in April 1997 for lack of evidence.

He oversaw the twin investigation of a former prime minister, Netanyahu again, in what became known as the “Amedi affair” and the “gifts affair,” involving both alleged fraud regarding payments to a private contractor and the alleged illicit retention, when Netanyahu was prime minister, of tens of thousands of dollars worth of state gifts. Rubinstein closed the cases in September 2000, citing lack of evidence, while castigating Netanyahu for “improper behavior.”

And he oversaw the investigation of a second serving prime minister, Sharon, in what became known as the Greek Island affair. Rubinstein had not reached a decision in the case when he stepped down; his successor, Menachem Mazuz, closed it with the withering conclusion that “the evidence does not even come close” to the level required for a conviction.

They are trying to weaken [the Supreme Court]. It is asserted that the Court is too liberal, too secular, leftist. This is… one of those kinds of stigma that is not always based in fact. But I believe that the tradition that has been fostered over the last 70 years is pretty strong and can withstand those challenges

Tellingly, given the months of relentless reporting to the effect that the police are highly likely to recommend that Netanyahu be charged in at least one of the corruption cases against him, involving the alleged illicit acceptance of a stream of expensive gifts from businessmen including Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, it is worth recalling that the police recommended indictments against Netanyahu in both sets of cases in the Rubinstein era, and were overruled. In the Greek Island case against Sharon, meanwhile, the state attorney went so far as to actually draft an indictment for bribery which Mazuz firmly set aside.

Truly, in such matters, the buck stops not with the cops, and not with others in the judicial hierarchy, but with the official in the hottest of legal hot seats, the attorney general.

Perpetually surrounded by paperwork: Justice Elyakim Rubinstein in his Supreme Court office in 2010. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Interviewed in the office he maintains in retirement at the Supreme Court, across a desk stacked haphazardly with more paperwork than I have ever previously encountered, Rubinstein, as you would expect, was judiciously circumspect on matters concerning Netanyahu, Mandelblit et al.

But in his hoarse, deliberate tones, he was instructive, nonetheless. His bottom line, the jurist’s inevitable bottom line: It’s all about the evidence. Only the evidence. Not the public mood. Or the demonstrations. Or the feared repercussions.

And one more thing, again as you’d expect: Mandelblit is to be trusted. Israel’s attorney general, insists his illustrious predecessor, is “an honest, good lawyer” whose decisions, whenever they come, will be “fair, and accurate legally.”

The first thing I wanted to ask you: Do you worry about the rule of law, and about democracy in the State of Israel? Where are things heading?

It is written, “Happy is the man who is constantly concerned,” but I do believe that the rule of law is quite strong, the court system is strong.

They are trying to weaken it. It is asserted that the court is too liberal, too secular, leftist. This is an exaggeration. One need only read the decisions. It’s one of those kinds of stigma that is not always based in fact.

But I believe that the tradition that has been fostered over the last 70 years is pretty strong and can withstand those challenges.

However, one mustn’t take anything for granted. We must work on it all the time. One cannot be complacent. But there is a resilience.

The process by which judges are chosen seems to be changing a little bit. Maybe with time it will give the court a different character?

The system or the method of choosing judges — the way the whole echelon works, not just the Supreme Court — is an Israeli invention, a unique Israeli invention, and I think it’s a good system, a good method. You have a partnership of all the relevant authorities. You have the government, you have two ministers, you have two Knesset members — I hope the tradition of one from the coalition, one opposition, will be maintained — two from the bar association, and three justices of the court. One of those is always the president and two rotate every three years. It’s a balanced system; it has been able to create an apolitical system.

Deputy Supreme Court President Elyakim Rubinstein (center), and justice Zvi Zilbertal (left) and Menachem Mazuz hear a case at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 26, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Of course, where political people are involved, where public matters are involved — in particular when you are talking about candidates for the Supreme Court, where you need the support of seven members (for an appointment) rather than five as for the other courts — it becomes a haggling and a kind of negotiating. Rather a lengthy process. But I don’t think the system should change.  It’s a good system.

I also believe that it’s legitimate for every part of the group, every group within the group, every sub-group, to express their views. There is a problem which has no solution, which is that, in particular when you choose justices for the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court deals with public matters — that is, state and religion, Palestinians, settlements, equality, minorities, just name it. Gender. So you pick for the Supreme Court people who are judges. Quite a number of them are former judges in the District Court. You don’t know and there’s no way to find out — you can’t ask them like in the US in those hearings — what are their political views. This is out of bounds. So there’s a problem which cannot be basically responded to, as part of the appointee’s views on political matters.

Even outside candidates — I sat on the committees — you can’t ask them: what are your views? If you were asking, they would say, I’m not political, I should not prejudge a case, etc. You’d get standard responses. So you don’t know, in this respect, exactly what you’re buying — in terms of the Supreme Court in particular, because in the other courts there’s less importance to the background.

I do not want to say that we are a corrupt state. We are not a corrupt state

Also, in the Supreme Court in particular, but also in other courts, it is a question of reflecting society (in the composition of the court). You want some people from the religious circles, women, others — you know, the mix that you should have. So, it’s not an easy process, but it’s the best we could produce and I don’t think there’s anything better. As Yitzhak Rabin used to say, the test is in the results, and the results have been good. Israeli courts are professional, independent and clean.

As things stand, you think the composition of the Supreme Court does reflect society?

Basically yes. It’s a good court. It is a hardworking group. It is a strategic asset for the state of Israel. Had it not been here, they would have had to invent it. It is respected elsewhere. I have met numerous people from other countries — judges, but also people from the non-legal world. They would all commend it. The court has built a good name. One shouldn’t erode it.

You are not worried. You don’t think there is an effort…?

It’s not that I’m not worried. As I said, it is always sensible to be concerned. But I do believe in the sturdiness of the courts. At the same time, as I said, we must always work on it.

Are there specific steps that are required?

No, just to continue. My best advice — though no one is asking for my advice — is just to continue to do the work.

We’ve done a lot of reporting at The Times of Israel about corruption in Israel, not in the courts, but I want to ask you, in terms of corruption, what do you see? Is there corruption in the legal system, in the police? Is there corruption in politics at the level that you hadn’t known before, or is everything as it should be?

First of all, I do not want to say that we are a corrupt state. We are not a corrupt state.

The fact that there are investigations and cases are prosecuted and, sadly, that we have gotten to the point where a prime minister, and a president, and a finance minister, and another minister, and another minister have gone to prison — this shows that the rule of law works. Because if we were a Third World country, that wouldn’t happen.

But to say that we should be completely satisfied? No.

The legal system is clean, in my opinion. So too the courts. Throughout the history of the state, in terms of the court system, exceptional incidents were few and far between. And they were in less severe categories, not dramatic bribery, thank the Lord.

Many great people have fallen because of greed

In terms of the police, it is an organization that has some problems, but I don’t want to brand it or give it a label as corrupt. Not at all. And it has a department to investigate officers that does its work. There have been behavioral problems, or unpleasant incidences whereby, within a short period of time, a few commanders had to be sent home, because of personal issues that should have been avoided.

There have been leaks. They say the current inspector general is working on this issue, but there have been leaks. Hence this whole issue of (the law) regarding police recommendations. You journalists live and breathe this. I rarely go to see movies, but yesterday we went to see the movie “The Post.” I know Washington a little, so it was interesting for me to see it. It was the period preceding when I was in Washington.

There you see that the moment the scoop was published, it was over. Because then the authorities started to work. Likewise, with Watergate, as soon as the material was published, it was all over. Nixon falls in the end. Here, on the other hand, I’m not convinced that the enforcement authorities act with comparable speed and effectiveness.

The first time I was in Washington was the day that Nixon resigned. I was opposite the White House on the day that he stepped down. August 9, 1974. I remember it well.

Elyakim Rubinstein, the justice overseeing the 2013 Knesset elections, counts ballots from soldiers and absentees, January 24, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

But to get back to us. There are corruption cases in the political sphere. My late father would always cite a saying in Yiddish, You can live a thousand years and die a fool. There are things that surprised me, even though I have a lot of experience, in this area of enforcement against corruption. In certain situations you know that it will be discovered at some point. In any situation where other people are involved, the chances are that it will come out. I’m not even talking about the rights and wrongs of it, that you’re a representative of the people, that you should not be doing this. A lot of it is greed, a lot of it is greed. Many great people have fallen because of greed. But many of them needed to think, and to say…

Which cases are you referring to?

All these cases you hear about in local government, mayors.

Mayors who eventually became prime ministers.

Prime minister Ariel Sharon sits beside Ehud Olmert at a cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, September 26, 2004 (Sharon Perry/Flash 90)

What can I say? There is corruption, and we must continue to fight it, and we are trying to fight it. But I return to the point that I made at the beginning. There are enforcement authorities. The state prosecution and the courts. And you see the results. Again, as Rabin always said, and I was his cabinet secretary, look at the results.

I’m worried that the police don’t have enough resources and expertise to cope not only with cases that we know about, but also there is so much sophisticated crime in our era and in my opinion they don’t have the means.

That is a different issue, not only for the police, but for all the hierarchies including the courts. It takes a long time to adapt to a new era. For instance, how do we cope with the internet, even in the realm of libel, where in a second a libel has gone around the world.

But you are correct that the first authorities that need to be up to date are the police and the enforcement authorities. The prosecution authorities have set up a cyber division and there’s an excellent person there, a specialist, but it’s not simple.

Many years ago, when I was the attorney general, one of the surprising things then was that the investigative units that needed to deal with complicated economic subjects and things of that sort didn’t have enough accountants, even legal experts, who could deal with the material, the evidence. I hope this has improved over the years. It was an issue.

I believe that the police force is motivated. I believe that there are good people there looking for the infractions. But it’s not just the police. The judicial system has to grapple with the new technology. We’re in a different world.

If I compare my childhood and my young years to today, my parents, for example, waited six years for a telephone. They did not have protektzia, so from 1961 until 1967 they waited for a telephone. When I was in the army, there wasn’t a telephone in our house, I would call from basic training to my father’s office, where he had a telephone, and we would speak for a moment. And there were 30 people waiting behind me. As soon as you would put in the asimon (phone token), you would hear, Finish already, so you would speak for maybe 30 seconds.

Either there is evidence or there isn’t evidence. And the public must be able to understand, in the end, once the decision is made… If an indictment is not submitted, after all the noise, it must be explained

A different world. Television entered the picture when I was 21, in 1968. How did you see the news on a screen? You wouldn’t remember. There was a newsreel at the cinema. You would go to a movie and before the movie there were 15-20 minutes of newsreel. There were two companies that produced these. I was living in Givatayim, so there was a delay. The movie theaters in Tel Aviv got them first — they paid more. Givatayim was an outlying province. It bought them secondhand. So we would see the news from a month ago. Still, we had the radio.

Let’s go back to political corruption. You were attorney general, the role Avichai Mandelblit holds today. Can you give me some sense of his considerations? You dealt with a case against the same prime minister, against Netanyahu, that you closed. Do you see parallels? What do you make of what you’re aware of?

I have no idea. I don’t like to comment on what I read in the newspapers. I don’t know exactly what the evidence is.

What I introduced in my day was what I used to call a “detailed reasoning.” The journalists called it a “public reckoning.” A detailed reasoning or explanation of why we closed the case, if we closed it. Why? First, because I thought that after all the noise of the investigation, if there’s just a cryptic four-line decision that we’ve closed it because there is not enough evidence, it doesn’t look reasonable to the public. Second, there’ll be a petition to the Supreme Court, so if we’ll have to present the detailed response to the Supreme Court, why shouldn’t I give it ahead of time. So that was my philosophy.

But I don’t know about the current investigations. I read the newspapers. I trust Mandelblit. That’s what I can say. I know him. I’m friendly with him, I’ve known him for years, but we are not close. We don’t visit each other or anything. I trust him. I believe he is an honest, good lawyer. I think (State Prosecutor Shai) Nitzan is good. In my view there is no doubt that the decisions that will be made will be fair, and accurate legally. I don’t think they will be influenced by the media or by the demonstrations or by anything. (Mandelblit) will do the job the way it should be done — professionally. That’s my view. That’s all I would like to say.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a ceremony in honor of the retirement of Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein, June 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

You sat and weighed the cases. What does the attorney general weigh? What are the principles that guide you?

It’s the law. You know, there are two considerations for opening and closing a case. One is evidence. That’s the main one. The second is the public interest. There is no question that in these kinds of cases there is public interest. So it’s evidence: whether there is evidence or there is not. The formula is: if you can prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. That’s the rule. The considerations are not considerations of whether this is good politically, or is this good in terms of what’s going on around us. It’s a criminal case.

For example, over the weekend we heard that among the hesitations were, if he loses, the entire court system will be destroyed. These are not considerations?

That’s part, but not the way you’ve phrased it. The phrasing is pretty simple: is the case beyond reasonable doubt?

Sometimes there are disagreements within the prosecution, with the police, with the state attorney. There have been disagreements.

Ultimately, I had to decide. How did President Truman put it? The buck stops here (with the attorney general).

So you had to decide. And then there was the Supreme Court. In my day, for instance, in most cases my decisions were not taken to the Supreme Court. And for those that were, the court didn’t accept the petition.

But I wouldn’t phrase it the way it is presented in the media: that I’m afraid of this or that. Either there is evidence or there isn’t evidence. And the public must be able to understand, in the end, once the decision is made. If he submits an indictment, then there’s no problem. There’s an indictment and it goes to court, and there is or isn’t a plea. But if an indictment is not submitted, after all the noise, it must be explained. I believed in the approach that I took. I thought that in the Israeli circumstances, it was appropriate to present the arguments to the public.

I just want to say and you don’t need to comment if you don’t want to, I followed the Greek Island affair. And I was shocked that the case was closed.

I won’t comment on that. The investigation began in my day. I was hoping to finish it, but the other partners in the investigation weren’t ready and I left. This was already in my successor’s day, so I don’t think I should comment.

Okay. Understood. And political pressure does not play a part?

Absolutely not. Not with (Mandelblit), not with me, not with Meni Mazuz. No part.

And the fact that it’s about the prime minister does not influence the decision that is made. It’s just about the law, the law only? The implications of the decision are not relevant?

The word is not “the law in abstract.” The word is “the evidence.” With the prime minister, of course there is more caution.

Because you’re removing someone who was elected?

In terms of all the implications. The fact is that the law states that the decision (on whether to indict) must be taken by the attorney general. It’s not just another investigation. But still, the basis is the same.

The questions are the same questions.

Yes.

State Attorney Edna Arbel and Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein at a press conference in Jerusalem on April 20, 1997, at which they announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not be prosecuted in the “Bar-On-Hebron” affair. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

I’d like to ask you something about the diplomatic process? You were involved in everything.

What do I have to say about the current situation? I don’t know anything. I read the newspapers. But you don’t want to hear my analysis. I’m not an analyst.

No, but you can give the big picture. You were part of the process with the Egyptians, you were central in the process with the Jordanians. In your opinion, what is achievable? Can we get to a place where we will know peace?

First of all, it really was a privilege. I got to be involved in all the arenas of negotiations — with the Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria. Not in Oslo, because we, in our talks in Washington, were bypassed. But I was involved in many.

And it was a privilege. In terms of Camp David of 1978, only three of us are still alive from our delegation, to my sorrow. Aharon Barak, Dan Pattir and myself. In terms of Jordan, it was a privilege to be the head of the delegation. This is the subject that I feel the most strongly about having been privileged to have contributed, to have had the possibility of contributing, together with others. I certainly was not alone, but it was a privilege, to help in drawing your country’s boundary, for example.

Fayez Tarawneh, Jordan’s ambassador to the US, seated left, and Elyakim Rubinstein, head of the Israeli delegation to the Jordan-Israel peace talks, sign an agreement at the State Department in Washington Tuesday September 14, 1993 setting the framework for resolving long-standing differences between them. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, standing right, talks to Victor Posuvaluk of the Russian Foreign Ministry during the signing.(AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)

If we go back to your question, on the one hand, there is not a lot of optimism today in terms of the Palestinians, definitely not in terms of the Lebanese or the Syrians at the moment, from the look of things, according to the newspapers.

On the other hand, it is important to say, in my opinion, that we must continue to seek peace. Even if the path looks blocked at this or that stage.

When Sadat came, it was a surprise. There had indeed been contacts, involving Morocco. But the visit itself was a surprise. Ten days prior to the visit, when he gave his speech in the Egyptian parliament that he was prepared to come to the Knesset, it sounded interesting, but not yet concrete. And then it progressed.

I was at the airport when Sadat arrived. I remember it to this day. It was emotional. It hadn’t been in the cards. It’s a cliché to talk about feeling the “wings of history” move, but the wings of that airplane were the wings of history.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is surrounded by security people as he waves to cheering crowds on his arrival in Israel, Nov. 19, 1977. (AP Photo)

One must educate for peace. For the sake of the soldier who goes to serve in positions where there may be danger: he needs to know not only that he’s being sent to fight, but that there is always someone who is trying to find a path to peace. Even if it seems distant. Maybe with a change of guard, maybe a different Palestinian leadership — I’m not talking about Israeli leadership; I don’t discuss politics — a Palestinian leadership that is brave enough to make the necessary concessions, to genuinely recognize Israel. They may be reciprocated.

Education. One of the failures in all of these processes, by the way, is the lack of education toward peace among our neighbors. With all of our neighbors. I’m still sorry. We hoped, especially when we worked with Jordan, after we learned the lessons from Egypt, that there would be more education towards peace in the public sphere there, but it didn’t really happen in the public at large.

Including in the schools.

Yes.

But not only in the schools because there is also the religious leadership and also the internet…

Yes, I’m talking about the general sphere of education.

All the time, it’s “the Jewish enemy,” that “the Jew is the enemy.” When you talk on a personal level, it’s different. I still have a personal connection with Jordanians. But (in the public sphere), the Jew is always — almost always — portrayed as the enemy, as Satan. Instead of saying, yes, we have differences, okay, but it’s a state, it’s a neighbor.

Elyakim Rubinstein far-left) shows prime minister Yitzhak Rabin where to sign the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, as President Clinton shields his eyes from the sun, and Jordanian prime minister Abdul-Salam Majali, right, also signs the treaty, at the Wadi Arab crossing,near Eilat, Israel, October 26, 1994. (AP Photo/Joe Marquette)

We spoke earlier about the investigation. Look, it is written here in the Basic Law, a criminal investigation will not be opened against the prime minister unless it is with the agreement of the attorney general. An indictment will be served by the attorney general to the district court.

I don’t believe even for a moment that anyone is dragging their feet, or that the demonstrations are having any influence

You see this special process, because of the domestic and international sensitivity. The process has to be scrupulous, thorough. Every case must be thorough. With a great deal of careful consideration. But then comes a bottom line, based on evidence.

You are saying this because of all the complaints that the process is taking so long?

No, not because of that. I am confident that they are doing their work in the way that they should. I have faith in them. I give credit to Mandelblit and to Nitzan.

We hear different things every week about the cases.

I am sure that whatever he (Mandelblit) decides, there will be transparency. If he closes the case, I am sure — though I have not spoken to him, of course — he will give his reasoning. Same if it’s a different decision. There will be clear transparency. I don’t believe even for a moment that anyone is dragging their feet, or that the demonstrations are having any influence.

Is demonstrating outside his synagogue crossing a line?

My home is my castle. He has an office. Demonstrate there as often as you want. Demonstrating is an important right. But he has a family. He has a private life – a little. I don’t think it’s acceptable to come to a synagogue or next to a home. If it’s further away, it’s okay.

Demonstrators outside a synagogue in Petah Tikvah where Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was praying, January 20, 2017 (Hadashot News screenshot; footage: Ariel Shanbel / Makor Rishon)

They were given permission to demonstrate next to the house.

When I was attorney general, there were demonstrations next to my house. I never complained because I didn’t want to make a fuss. There were attempts to hurt me in synagogue. I remember that on the fast day, the 17th of Tammuz, people from the extreme right came and tried to hit me and the people praying removed them. That was many years ago.

What was that about?

I don’t remember which investigation it involved. I don’t know if they really meant to hit, but it came close to that before they were removed. There was also a situation that I was escorted home from the synagogue by extremists and people were calling me names. And also a few people lived opposite my house for ten days. I didn’t make an issue of it. They wrote ‘traitor’ on my house when I headed the negotiations with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. They wrote graffiti, calling me a traitor. Rabbis wrote a letter, something about, my fingers will be cut off if land is given away. They quoted some source, that those who give away parts of the Land of Israel… Some of these are the same rabbis that you see today. I received many calls at home. At that time our telephone numbers were still in the phone directory. There were obscene phone calls to my daughters. I was also once somehow attacked in a synagogue in Los Angeles by an Israeli extremist.

In the context of diplomatic processes?

Yes. But also when I was attorney general. There were plenty of instances. There was a time that they wanted to give me a bodyguard but I didn’t want it.

The court always looks for balance. So if it’s a public square a bit further away, okay. But not to drive you crazy. There are neighbors as well. Demonstrating is an important right. It’s not crucial that you demonstrate right next to the house. The fact that you have demonstrated, even if it’s a few hundred meters away, you get the same coverage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party rally in Airport City on August 30, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party rally, called to show solidarity with him as he faces corruption investigations, in Airport City on August 30, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

If he is charged he must resign, legally?

I don’t want to speak about that.

It is not clear cut, in other words?

I don’t want to speak about it, I don’t want to give an opinion. I haven’t done enough homework.

Let’s turn to something not connected to this. The wars — maybe that’s too hard a word — between the Jews: the Western Wall prayer controversy, conversion, the wider friction between the state and the Jews of the Diaspora. You were active in this field as well.

I will say something general, first of all. In my opinion we must find solutions to these questions. Conversion, the Western Wall – in a way in which no one is forced to swerve from his religious belief or his core principles or religious law and at the same time, that there is a convergence and consideration for the other: the Diaspora Jews, Reform Jews and Conservative Jews. It seems so obvious to me that this is what needs to be. We’re talking about brothers. We need them as brothers.

Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein with Prof. Aaron Ciechanover (center) and Professor Avraham Steinberg (right) at a Knesset event celebrating 70 years of the “Encyclopedia Talmudit” on January 5, 2016. The Encyclopedia Talmudit is a Hebrew language encyclopedia that aims to summarize the halakhic topics of the Talmud. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

It’s not because we need the support of AIPAC or political support, which is very important, or money, because we’re not such a poor country. But it is the solidarity. It must not be damaged. This does not negate the faith of anyone or any religious or halachic issue.

We tried — me personally at the end of the 1980s, and also Yaakov Ne’eman with the Ne’eman Committee at the end of 1997, when was it, 1998. And all the efforts to date have not succeeded.

For instance, on the subject of conversion, it is possible to have a fair process of conversion, in which, as proposed by the Ne’eman Committee, the Reform and Conservatives are involved in the preparatory process, and the conversion itself is done in a court that is accepted by the chief rabbis. There is no shortage of such courts. It is possible to reach an arrangement. I wouldn’t even call it a compromise, because people don’t like to be perceived as compromising on religious issues.

What pains me, personally, is that the tribalism — caring only about one’s own sector — is dominating and there are no efforts towards unity

As for the Western Wall, I personally thought that the Mandelblit formula was good. That was my personal opinion when I read about it. I am no longer sitting in the court and have not read the arguments against it. I haven’t read the briefs of the rabbis or of the government. After all, they are not touching the existing plaza. Sharansky and Mandelblit are good people who only want to do good. That is what they wanted.

Arrangements must be found for all these matters. Maybe there have been changes. Maybe I am not updated. I am not familiar with the case being dealt with now. I don’t discuss the matter with the judges. I am retired, retired. And therefore I don’t know, but leaving aside the specific matter of the Western Wall, the need for Jewish unity is simply a must.

I will say one more thing. There is currently a new initiative, for a Jewish, democratic congress. I was asked to be the chairman of this public committee. It’s an initiative by Haim Taib and Yosef Zarzavsky from the world of business, together with Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, dean of Bar-Ilan University Law School, and Prof. Ariel Bendor. They’re doing something nice in February. This initiative is coming from a good place.

This is an effort to build a new forum?

Yes, to try to find solutions. I think it is a necessity. All of the Shabbat issues. What pains me, personally, is that the tribalism — caring only about one’s own sector — is dominating and there are no efforts towards unity. I am not looking through rose-colored glasses. I am not some sort of a detached optimist. I am a realist. I have been living here for 70 years. I believe it is possible.

It seems to me that we are lacking a forum for Israel-Diaspora dialogue and action. It can’t be that out of the blue on a Sunday morning the government cancels the Western Wall compromise deal on which years have been spent in negotiations with Diaspora Jewish leaders.

Tell me about it.

Political security and diplomatic issues are for Israel to decide, but on issues regarding Judaism, there has to be some kind of more effective forum.

I understand what you’re saying. In my opinion, yes.

As regards conscription for the ultra-Orthodox, it seems to me that everyone should be obligated to some kind of national service. Therefore there need to be programs that are appropriate for the ultra-Orthodox.

I agree with you. I also wrote in my decisions; everything is on the record. Nobody should accuse me of having anything other than the deepest respect for the study of Torah. I personally devote a great deal of time – not as much as I’d wish – but a lot, to Torah study. It’s a considerable part of my life every day. As regards serving the state, as something for all of Israel, that to me is of real value. Anyone who is interested can read the decisions I’ve written.

Elyakim Rubinstein, aged 55, checks the ID of a Palestinian woman during a stint of reserve service in the IDF, August 8, 2002. (Flash90)

I also feel that in the ultra-Orthodox world, or at least a considerable part of it — I’m not talking about those curious elements that won’t even go to sign an exemption from service at the IDF recruitment office — there is some movement. I was in Haifa and an ultra-Orthodox man came up to me. He said, Hello, your honor, and he wanted a selfie with me. I got talking to him. He told me he is studying law. Then his wife thought the selfie wasn’t good enough, so she took another picture of her husband and myself. He saw it as a good thing to have a picture with a justice, albeit retired.

There’s a Gur Hasid in the Supreme Court petitions department of the Justice Ministry. The first time I saw him I said to him, Are my eyes deceiving me? We should say the shehechiyanu prayer (on gratitude…). An ultra-Orthodox man in such a role. We see it in the media as well, haredi journalists.

I had a substitute secretary who was ultra-Orthodox. She learned accounting and succeeded. I was proud of it.

There is progress.

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