Three weeks ago, attention in Israel was riveted on two dramatic events that ultimately changed nothing—a rocket barrage from Gaza that didn’t lead to war and a cabinet resignation that didn’t bring down the government. These dramas overshadowed a truly significant event that occurred that same week: The government stopped being the only entity in Israel deprived of the basic right to defend its positions in court.
To anyone unfamiliar with Israel’s legal system, that probably sounds ridiculous. But it has been reality for the past quarter-century. And the fact that three Supreme Court justices finally rebelled against it indicates that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s efforts to foment a judicial counterrevolution are bearing fruit.
The root of the evil was a 1993 Supreme Court ruling on a petition against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s refusal to fire a deputy minister, Raphael Pinchasi, whom the attorney general had tentatively decided to indict for corruption. Rabin wanted to wait for Attorney General Yosef Harish’s final decision. But Harish sided with the petitioner (a nongovernmental organization) and refused to represent Rabin’s position in court.
Pinchasi’s attorneys therefore argued that the government’s position hadn’t been properly represented. But the court, astoundingly, asserted that the attorney general’s position is the government’s position, even if the government disagrees. “The attorney general is the authorized interpreter of the law for the executive branch,” it said, and therefore, his opinion is binding on the government.
The result of this ruling was that the government effectively lost its right to defend its policies against legal challenges. If the attorney general happens to support a policy, then he’ll obviously defend it in court. But if he opposes it, he can choose not to defend it, and then the government’s position won’t be heard at all. The government can’t even hire an outside lawyer to defend it without the attorney general’s consent, and needless to say, such consent is rarely given.
This has two obviously pernicious consequences. The first is that in any disagreement between the elected government and the unelected attorney general, the latter’s view automatically prevails. Thus instead of being the government’s lawyer, the attorney general became its ruler.
The second is that the government has been deprived of a fundamental legal right—the right to defend itself in court. Individuals, corporations and NGOs are all entitled to defend themselves against legal challenges. Only the elected government is not.
But after 25 years of upholding this blatant injustice, the court has finally started to question it. The case itself was minor. Science Minister Ofir Akunis had refused to approve a scientist’s appointment to the board of a German-Israeli foundation because she once signed a letter supporting soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank. When the scientist and the council of university presidents challenged this decision in court, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit refused to defend it.
Under the old norms, that should have ended the story: The government would automatically have lost. Instead, the three justices devoted much of the first hearing to criticizing the fact that Akunis’s views weren’t being heard. They then took the unprecedented step of allowing Akunis to represent himself at the next hearing.
Clearly, this isn’t the same as having a trained lawyer represent the government. Akunis, having no legal background, couldn’t advance any legal arguments in his defense. But he could at least explain his policy considerations, which is better than the court receiving no explanation whatsoever. And it’s an important step in the direction of recognizing the government’s right to full legal representation.
One justice also used the hearing to challenge another shibboleth long mandated by the court—that political considerations may not play any role in most government appointments. In other words, aside from a handful of senior office-holders, ministers have no right to appoint people who will support their own policies. This view that political considerations are illegitimate figured largely in Mendelblit’s refusal to defend Akunis’s decision.
But Justice Alex Stein disagreed. “Akunis does have the authority to weigh political considerations,” he said, because “the legislator chose to give the appointment power to the minister, and the legislator presumably knows that the minister is a political figure.”
The justices haven’t yet issued their final ruling, so they may still end up upholding the old order. Moreover, in any normal legal system, nothing about this case would even be an issue. In most democracies, it’s a given that ministers have the right to make political judgments when making appointments; it’s a given that the government is entitled to representation in court; and it’s a given that the attorney general isn’t the government’s master. Like any other lawyer, he’s expected to either represent his client or resign.
But for 25 years, none of the above has been true in Israel’s legal system. Thus the fact that newly appointed justices are starting to rebel against the status quo is a major change. And judicial rebellion is the only remedy currently available because there’s still no parliamentary majority for codifying the necessary reforms in legislation: The legal establishment has been too successful in convincing centrists that a legal system like that of all other democracies would somehow destroy judicial independence and democracy itself.
This sea change is a victory, above all, for Shaked, who has demonstrated unrelenting determination and political savvy in pushing through game-changing appointments. It’s no coincidence that two of the three justices in this case are people she successfully pushed through the Judicial Appointments Committee despite fierce opposition, especially from the three sitting justices who comprise a third of the committee’s members.
Credit also goes to her party leader, Naftali Bennett, who could have chosen the justice portfolio for himself instead of the less prestigious education portfolio, but gave it to Shaked because he had the sense and the generosity to recognize that she had a passion for judicial reform, which he lacked.
But the biggest winner is Israeli democracy. After 25 years in which unelected legal officials have had near-dictatorial powers over the elected government, the ship of state is finally starting to turn.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on December 5, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Note: This article was published on October 10 but posted to my site only on December 3
In my last column, I noted in passing that the International Criminal Court’s blatant anti-Israel bias is merely a symptom of a more fundamental flaw. That isn’t self-evident; court supporters would doubtless argue, just as many people do about the United Nations, that while the court’s anti-Israel bias is regrettable, it’s an isolated flaw that doesn’t outweigh the benefit of ending impunity for atrocities.
What convinced me both that the ICC is unredeemable and that the impunity problem has a better solution was actually a book by one of the court’s ardent supporters—Philippe Sands, a law professor and international lawyer who has worked on ICC cases. In East West Street, Sands traces the development of two key concepts in international law—crimes against humanity and genocide—to their respective culminations in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and the Genocide Convention of 1948. But for me, the real eye-opener was his description of the international wrangling that preceded the Nuremberg Trials.
Nuremberg is sometimes derided as victor’s justice. And in one sense, it obviously was: Four of the victors of World War II—America, Britain, Russia and France—decided to put senior officials of their vanquished foe on trial. But what was striking about Nuremberg was the massive degree of international concord required to hold those trials. Lawyers representing several very different legal systems and several very different systems of government nevertheless had to agree on every word and even every comma in the indictments. And since those lawyers were acting on their governments’ behalf, political approval by all four governments was also needed.
In contrast, the ICC needs no international buy-in at all to pursue a case. Granted, its prosecutors and judges come from many different countries, but they represent neither their home governments nor their home legal systems. Politically, they represent nobody but themselves. Legally, they represent one particular interpretation of international law—an interpretation popular with academics and “human rights” organizations, but less so with national governments.
At first glance, both of the above may sound like pluses. Prosecutorial and judicial independence are generally good things, whereas many governments and legal systems leave much to be desired when it comes to protecting human rights.
But the ICC’s version of prosecutorial and judicial independence is very different from the version found in most democracies because the latter is not completely unconstrained. In democracies, prosecutors and judges are constrained first of all by democratically enacted legislation, and usually by democratically enacted constitutions as well. They’re also constrained by the fact that they, too, are citizens of their country, and therefore share concerns important to most of their countrymen—for instance, national self-defense—but unimportant to judges and prosecutors from other countries (which those at the ICC almost always will be).
Moreover, in democracies, courts ultimately derive their power from the consent of the governed since they were established pursuant to democratically elected laws or constitutions. The ICC, in contrast, asserts jurisdiction even over countries that never consented to it. See, for instance, the cases it’s pursuing against Israel and America, neither of which ever joined the court.
What all this means is that a few unelected individuals have been given the power—or even worse, in the case of countries that didn’t join the court, have seized it—to criminalize decisions made by democratically elected national governments. They can do so based on a legal system different from those of many democracies, and whose provisions they can interpret however they please, unburdened by the doctrine of precedent (stare decisis) that democratic legal systems generally employ. They can ignore considerations that citizens of most countries consider important, like national self-defense. They are even free to pursue personal vendettas, as evidenced by their biased treatment of Israel. In short, they have no constraints on their power at all.
All these problems are compounded, as legal scholar Jeremy Rabkin noted last month, when people from countries blessed with peaceful neighbors sit in judgment on the decisions made by countries not so blessed. At the ICC, people with no clue about, say, the difficulty of avoiding civilian casualties when combating attacks launched from crowded urban areas, or the devastating impact of living under constant rocket fire even when the death toll is low, presume to judge countries for whom such problems are daily realities.
In short, the ICC has none of the safeguards that national courts in democracies have. And no international tribunal ever could.
Nevertheless, letting atrocities like genocide go unpunished clearly isn’t an acceptable option. So how do we strike a proper balance between the need to prosecute atrocities and the need to maintain the safeguards that the ICC signally lacks?
The answer lies in the feature that distinguished not only the Nuremberg Trials, but also subsequent ad hoc international criminal tribunals like those on the Rwandan genocide and the Balkan wars of the 1990s—massive international consensus. Cases will be pursued only against acts so outrageous that many different governments and many different legal systems can all concur that they far exceed the realm of reasonable governmental or military action.
Granted, that means many crimes will go unpunished. But it turns out that’s equally true for the ICC. For instance, the court indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for the Darfur genocide almost a decade ago, but hasn’t been able to pursue the case because none of the many countries he has since visited has been willing to arrest him. Similarly, the ICC’s case against Kenya’s president collapsed because the Kenyan government refused to cooperate. In other words, successful prosecution is unlikely in any event absent either massive international consensus or the target country’s consent.
Thus replacing the ICC with ad hoc tribunals, which could be created only when the requisite international consensus exists, wouldn’t significantly reduce the amount of justice dispensed. But it would significantly alleviate the ICC’s main flaws: political bias, the undermining of national self-defense and interference with democratic national decision-making. That would be a win for both justice and democracy.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on October 10, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
The International Criminal Court’s blatant anti-Israel bias is no secret. Just two months ago, I wrote about its decision to launch an unprecedented fishing expedition against Israel. Nevertheless, its latest decision raises bias to an art form—the art in question being farce. It also completely destroys any pretensions the court has left of serving its original purpose: Ensuring that the world’s worst crimes don’t go unpunished.
On November 15, the pretrial chamber of judges ordered the court’s prosecutor—for the second time—to reconsider her refusal to investigate Israel’s 2010 raid on a flotilla to Gaza. Demanding one reconsideration is rare. Demanding two is unheard of. No such option even exists in the ICC’s rulebook.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda appealed this ruling last week. But regardless of what the Appeals Chamber decides, it’s already too late to salvage the pretense that the court is an unbiased judicial institution and not a cesspool of anti-Israel prejudice.
To understand why, a review of the case is in order. In May 2010, a flotilla tried to break Israel’s legal blockade of Gaza. Israel intercepted most of the ships peacefully. But on one, according to the same UN inquiry that upheld the blockade’s legality, passengers attacked the soldiers with “fists, knives, chains, wooden clubs, iron rods, and slingshots,” seriously wounding nine. To protect themselves, the soldiers opened fire, killing ten people.
Comoros, whose flag that ship flew, filed a complaint against Israel over the incident in May 2013. In November 2014, Bensouda dismissed it. Despite concluding (wrongly) that the soldiers used excessive force, she said the fact that they opened fire only after being attacked and the low number of deaths made the incident insufficiently grave to warrant attention from a court created to prosecute major atrocities. But in July 2015, the pretrial chamber ordered her to reconsider—the first time it had ever overturned a prosecutor’s decision.
I dissected the judges’ egregious errors of both fact and law at the time, including their failure even to mention the passengers’ attack on the soldiers, which was central to Bensouda’s decision, and their astounding argument that the gravity of the case should be determined not by what happened, but by how much international “attention and concern” it attracted. Bensouda evidently found their ruling equally unpersuasive, since she appealed it. But after losing that appeal, she duly reconsidered.
In November 2017, she announced, unsurprisingly, that her opinion remained unchanged. That should have ended the story. After all, the same appellate judges who upheld the pretrial chamber’s demand for reconsideration also unequivocally authorized her to stick with her original conclusion if she still deemed it correct. Moreover, section 108(3) of the ICC’s own rules explicitly defines the prosecutor’s decision after reconsideration as a “final decision.”
But Comoros appealed again, and astoundingly, the pretrial judges once again ordered her to reconsider, saying her initial reconsideration hadn’t satisfied their requirements. The clear implication was that they would keep demanding reconsiderations until Bensouda produced the decision they wanted.
There are several glaring problems with this. First, of course, it ignores the plain meaning of section 108(3). Instead, the majority essentially argued that a “final decision” only becomes final once they approve the outcome.
Second, as Judge Peter Kovacs noted in his dissent, it “would mean that the Prosecutor’s decision would be subject to an indefinite number of reviews, which is an absurd conclusion”—one that could “open the door for endless reconsideration requests, even in relation to different situations before the Court.” In other words, no case would ever actually be closed, since any such decision could be reconsidered ad infinitum. And if cases can’t be closed, justice can’t be done.
Third, the ruling destroys prosecutorial independence, which is why Bensouda had to appeal. If she’s required to keep reconsidering until her decision meets the pretrial chamber’s approval, then she has no independent judgment; she’s merely a stenographer typing up whatever decision the chamber dictates.
Fourth, it disqualifies the pretrial chamber from doing its actual job: providing an unbiased initial review should Bensouda in fact file charges. Having arrogated to itself the role of prosecutor as well as judge, it would effectively be reviewing its own decision in violation of one of the most fundamental principles of justice.
Finally, it’s a colossal waste of the court’s time. The ICC has already spent more than five years on a case the prosecutor considers unworthy of its attention, and may yet spend much more, depending on the Appeals Chamber’s decision. But every moment the court devotes to this case is time it can’t devote to truly serious crimes.
Thus, in the interests of pursuing their anti-Israel vendetta, the pretrial judges have forced the court to squander years on a triviality, even as mass murderers around the globe go unpunished. They have thereby betrayed both the court’s stated mission and a fundamental principle of justice: that the magnitude of the ostensible crime should matter more than how much the judges dislike the perpetrator.
This is an evil the appellate judges can’t undo. Overturning the pretrial chamber’s latest ruling would reassert the principle of prosecutorial independence and the finality of decisions. But it wouldn’t erase the pretrial chamber’s blatant demonstration of bias, in defiance of the fundamental legal tenet that laws must apply equally to everyone. It wouldn’t dispel the suspicion, should Bensouda ever file charges against Israel in this or any other case, that it may be less because they are warranted than to spare herself endless hassles with the pre-trial chamber. Nor would it make the pretrial judges capable of giving Israel a fair hearing should it ever be indicted.
Above all, it wouldn’t undo the court’s fundamental betrayal of its own mission. Instead of prosecuting the world’s worst atrocities, it has wasted five years on a minor incident simply to satisfy its judges’ anti-Israel prejudice. In so doing, it has destroyed the primary justification for its existence. The only question left is why taxpayers worldwide should continue funding this travesty.
Originally published in Commentary on November 28, 2018
National Security Advisor John Bolton’s verbal assault on the International Criminal Court earlier this month raised a predictable outcry. But anyone who cares about justice should be cheering him on. There are many reasons for this, but here’s one: In its treatment of one country in particular, the court has already violated fundamental principles of justice and demonstrated blatant bias.
The ICC has considered or is considering several complaints against Israel. Though none has yet resulted in charges, judges from the pretrial chamber—who normally become involved only after charges are filed—have already intervened twice. In both cases, they violated standard rules of procedure in an effort to tip the scales against Israel.
The first intervention followed Israel’s botched interception of a flotilla to Gaza in 2010. A subsequent U.N. investigation concluded that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was legal, and Israel was justified in enforcing it. It also concluded that Israeli soldiers shot and killed 10 passengers only after passengers attacked them with “iron bars, staves, chains, and slingshots.” The soldiers “faced significant, organized and violent resistance,” the U.N. report said. “Three soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk by those passengers. Several others were wounded.” Passengers even seized some of the soldiers’ guns, and “there is some reason to believe” they used those guns to shoot two soldiers.
ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, despite asserting (wrongly) that the soldiers used excessive force, correctly deemed this incident of insufficient gravity to merit attention by a court created to deal with major atrocities, given the passengers’ violent behavior and the low number of deaths. She therefore closed the case.
But the pretrial chamber—the very chamber tasked with deciding whether there’s enough evidence to proceed should Bensouda file charges—overturned this decision in 2015, ordering her to reconsider. To her credit, she didn’t change her mind. But that doesn’t lessen the gravity of the chamber’s conduct.
First, never before had a pretrial chamber rejected a prosecutor’s decision not to prosecute, so this decision raised obvious suspicions of bias. Far worse, however, it eviscerated a crucial safeguard of every fair legal system—that the person bringing the charges shouldn’t be the one to rule on their validity. In this case, by seeking to usurp the prosecutor’s discretion, the pretrial chamber destroyed its ability to serve as an impartial judge. How could it possibly provide a fair hearing if charges were filed at its explicit behest, against the prosecutor’s best judgment?
Then, lest anyone think this was a one-time aberration, the pretrial chamber took another exceptional step against Israel in July. Without waiting for Bensouda to conclude any of her other Israel-related probes (the Palestinian Authority inundates her with complaints), the pretrial chamber ordered the court’s registry to establish “a system of public information and outreach activities for the benefit of the victims and affected communities in the situation in Palestine,” open an “informative page” on the court’s website exclusively for Palestinians, and report to the chamber on these operations every three months with the goal of creating a “continuous system of interaction between the Court and victims, residing within or outside of Palestine.”
All the probes in question are still in the preliminary stage, meaning Bensouda hasn’t even decided whether they merit a full-fledged investigation. And it’s unprecedented for the court to engage in this kind of outreach at such an early stage, for good reason—it destroys the judges’ ability to serve as impartial arbiters.
After all, Bensouda has yet to conclude that any crime even occurred, much less that the court has jurisdiction over it (which is far from self-evident). Moreover, the judges have yet to see any evidence in the cases at issue. Yet by declaring the Palestinians victims to whom the court must reach out, they have effectively announced that they’re already convinced both that crimes have occurred and that they’re within the court’s jurisdiction. And if the judges have decided all this without even bothering to review any evidence, how could they possibly be trusted to evaluate the evidence fairly should Bensouda actually file charges?
Moreover, by twice sending Bensouda clear signals that they want her to indict Israel, the judges have undermined her credibility as an independent prosecutor. If she ever does file such charges, will it be because she truly considers them justified or only because it’s easier to placate the judges above her than to keep defying them?
Thus the court’s track record on Israel alone provides ample justification for Bolton’s broadside against it. Indeed, it ought to concern many countries since a court that’s biased against one country can’t be trusted to eschew bias against others. But it should especially concern America because America’s worldwide military operations make it a far more likely target for war-crimes complaints than other Western democracies.
Moreover, there’s little Israel has done in its wars that the United States hasn’t also done, often on a larger scale—targeted killings of terrorists, demolishing civilian houses suspected of being booby-trapped, accidentally killing civilians, etc. So any ICC indictment against Israel would set a precedent for similar charges against America. Washington should therefore be very worried by the fact that ICC judges are willing to violate crucial tenets of judicial fairness to secure such an indictment.
But even if the court’s bias were confined to Israel alone, that would still be unacceptable. The most fundamental tenet of any fair legal system is that laws must apply equally to all. If even one country is subject to unfair treatment at the ICC, that’s a sign that something is deeply wrong with the court.
Indeed, I believe the court’s treatment of Israel is merely a symptom of a fundamental flaw in its model of justice, an issue I’ll discuss in a separate column. But one needn’t accept that contention to realize that its anti-Israel bias alone is sufficient to undermine the court’s pretense of serving justice. And by refusing to overlook that uncomfortable fact—by refusing to grant a travesty of justice the honor due the real thing—America is upholding its highest ideals.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on September 26, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Ever since Israel’s nation-state law was enacted in July, one constant refrain has sounded: The law should have included a provision guaranteeing equality to all Israelis. It’s not only the law’s opponents who say this; so do many of its supporters, liberals and conservatives alike. But they are wrong.
Adding a provision about equality to the nation-state law sounds innocuous because civic and political equality is already implicitly guaranteed through the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Basic Laws are Israel’s closest approximation to constitutional legislation, and the 1992 law, which protects the “dignity of any person as such,” has been consistently interpreted by the courts as enshrining equality on the grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity. So what harm could it do to offer an explicit guarantee in the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People?
The answer is that doing so would elevate Israel’s democratic character above its Jewish one. And that would negate the entire purpose of the nation-state law, which was to restore Israel’s Jewish character to parity with its democratic one—not superiority, but merely parity.
To understand why this is so, it’s first necessary to understand why adding an equality provision would violate basic constitutional logic. This argument was cogently made from the liberal side of the political spectrum by Haim Ramon, a former senior Labor Party Knesset member and former justice minister. Writing in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition last month, Ramon argued that if anyone thinks equality isn’t sufficiently protected by the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, they should work to amend that law rather than the nation-state law, as the former is where any provision on equality belongs.
This isn’t mere semantic quibbling. A constitution, being a country’s supreme instrument of governance, isn’t supposed to be a jumble of random provisions thrown together with no more thought than a monkey sitting at a keyboard might provide; it’s supposed to be a carefully crafted document. That’s why constitutions typically group all provisions relating to a given topic into a single article or chapter. Each article has equal status; none is more or less important than the others. And together, they create a comprehensive document that addresses all the basic questions of governance.
Israel has largely followed this logic to date. It doesn’t have a finished constitution, but every Basic Law is considered to be one article of a future constitution. So Israel has, inter alia, a Basic Law on the legislature, one on the executive, one on the judiciary, one on basic human rights, and now, one on Israel’s Jewish character: the nation-state law. And just as details of how to choose the prime minister belong in the article on the executive rather than the article on the judiciary, so, too, provisions on universal human rights, like equality, belong in the article on human rights, not the one on Israel’s particularistic Jewish character.
But precisely because this is the normal constitutional procedure, any glaring deviation from this norm would have moral and legal significance. So what would it tell us if, contrary to all constitutional logic, a provision on equality—something already implicitly guaranteed in an earlier article of Israel’s constitution-to-be—were to be explicitly restated in a subsequent article dealing with Israel’s Jewish character?
It would tell us that Israel’s universalist democratic character trumps its Jewish character. That would be the natural implication of equality being the only principle deemed worthy of being stated not once, but twice—not just in the article where it naturally belongs, but also in an article dealing with a completely unrelated topic. That would also be the natural implication of Israel’s Jewish character being the only constitutional issue deemed unworthy of a Basic Law entirely to itself, the only one forced to share its Basic Law with material that properly belongs, and in fact already exists, in a different one. Indeed, the implication would be that Israel’s Jewish character is so illegitimate that it can be allowed in the constitution at all only if its legal significance is diluted by adding a restatement of Israel’s universalist character.
In short, the clear message of adding “equality” to the nation-state law would be that Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities aren’t equal; rather, its democratic identity has primacy and its Jewish identity is subordinate. That’s exactly the situation that existed prior to the nation-state law’s enactment, when Israel had several Basic Laws setting out its democratic character but none at all setting out its Jewish character. And that’s the very situation the nation-state law was meant to correct.
Nothing in the nation-state law gives Israel’s Jewish identity priority over its democratic one; the law was intended merely to put these dual identities back on an equal footing. Adding “equality” to it would thus be antithetical to its purpose.
In one sense, this entire discussion is moot. As Ramon noted, an explicit mention of equality was omitted from the Human Dignity and Liberty law due to haredi opposition, and almost certainly couldn’t be enacted today for the same reason, regardless of whether it were proposed for that law or the nation-state law.
But the broader issue of parity between Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities isn’t moot at all. It’s an ongoing battle, and a crucial one.
The vast majority of Israelis wants Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, and a plurality believes that these two elements should be equally balanced. But being a democracy isn’t Israel’s raison d’être; there are plenty of other democracies around. There would be no reason to have made the effort of establishing and sustaining Israel in the teeth of regional and, often, international hostility in order to have just one more democracy, indistinguishable from all the others.
Israel’s raison d’être is that it’s the world’s only Jewish state—the only place in the world where the Jewish people can determine their own fate. That’s what makes it worth having. Thus a Basic Law that contradicts this raison d’être by subordinating its Jewish character to its democratic one is something no one who values Israel should want in its constitution.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on September 12, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org
Israel’s new nation-state law has elicited a storm of criticism since it passed on July 19. Some of this criticism is justified; a law that manages to unite virtually the entire Druze community against it, despite this community’s longstanding support for Israel as a Jewish state in principle, clearly wasn’t drafted with sufficient care, as even the heads of two parties that backed the law (Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon) now admit. Nevertheless, much of the criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel’s constitutional system.
Israel doesn’t have a constitution. What it has is a series of Basic Laws to which the Supreme Court unilaterally accorded constitutional status. Many people, myself included, disagree with that decision, inter alia because constitutional legislation should reflect a broad consensus, whereas many Basic Laws were approved by only narrow majorities or even minorities of the Knesset. Nevertheless, both sides in this dispute agree on one thing: Each Basic Law is merely one article in Israel’s constitution or constitution-to-be. They cannot be read in isolation, but only as part of a greater whole.
Consequently, it’s ridiculous to claim that the nation-state law undermines democracy, equality or minority rights merely because those terms don’t appear in it, given that several other Basic Laws already address these issues. The new law doesn’t supersede the earlier ones; it’s meant to be read in concert with them.
Several Basic Laws, including those on the Knesset, the government and the judiciary, detail the mechanisms of Israeli democracy and enshrine fundamental democratic principles like free elections and judicial independence. There are also two Basic Laws on human rights, both of which explicitly define Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
Of these human rights laws, the more important is the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. It includes general protections like “There shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such” and “All persons are entitled to protection of their life, body and dignity,” as well as specific protections for liberty, property and privacy. Though the law doesn’t mention “equality” or “minority rights,” the courts have consistently interpreted it as barring discrimination on the eminently reasonable grounds that discrimination fundamentally violates a person’s dignity (the one exception, which all legal systems make, is if discrimination has pertinent cause, like barring pedophiles from teaching).
Granted, there are things this law can’t do, such as breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce, because it explicitly grandfathers all pre-existing legislation. But it applies to all legislation passed after 1992.
Thus to argue that the nation-state law is undemocratic because it doesn’t mention equality or minority rights is like arguing that the U.S. Constitution is undemocratic because Articles I and II confer broad powers on the legislature and executive without mentioning the protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Everyone understands that the Constitution’s provisions on governmental power aren’t supposed to be read in isolation, but in concert with the first 10 amendments, so there’s no need to reiterate those rights in every other article. Similarly, the nation-state law isn’t meant to be read in isolation, but only in concert with other Basic Laws enshrining Israel’s democratic system and basic human rights. Thus there’s no reason for it to reiterate protections already found in those other laws.
Nor are any of the law’s specific provisions undemocratic. For instance, the provision stating that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” doesn’t deprive Arabs of individual rights within Israel, nor does it bar the possibility of Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza, which aren’t part of the State of Israel. The only thing it prohibits is an Arab state within Israel’s borders, which is problematic only if you favor replacing Israel with another Arab state.
As for the provision making Hebrew the state’s only official language, many other democracies also have a single official language despite having large minorities with different mother tongues. For instance, 17 percent of America’s population is Hispanic, only slightly less than the 21 percent of Israel’s population that’s Arab, yet Spanish isn’t an official language in America, and few people would argue that this makes America undemocratic.
Indeed, Israel’s new law goes much farther than many other democracies in guaranteeing minority language rights, thanks to one provision according Arabic “special status” and another stating that nothing in the law “undermines the status enjoyed by the Arabic language in practice before this Basic Law came into effect.” The latter provision actually preserves Arabic’s status as an official language de facto. It may have been stupid not to preserve it de jure as well, but “stupid” isn’t the same as “undemocratic.”
All of the above explains why even the heads of the Israel Democracy Institute—a left-leaning organization usually harshly critical of the current government—said at a media briefing this week that the law “doesn’t change anything practically,” “won’t change how the country is run,” and is merely “symbolic and educational.”
The law was meant to solve a specific constitutional problem: The courts have frequently interpreted the Jewish half of “Jewish and democratic” at a “level of abstraction so high that it becomes identical to the state’s democratic nature,” as former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak famously said. Yet no definition of “Jewish” can be complete without recognizing that Judaism has particularist, as well as universal, aspects because it’s the religion of a particular people with a particular history, culture and traditions. By emphasizing some of those particularist aspects, the law is supposed to restore the intended balance between the Jewish and democratic components of Israel’s identity. But it doesn’t eliminate those democratic components, which are enshrined in numerous other Basic Laws, nor was it intended to do so.
I’m skeptical that the law will achieve its intended purpose, but I see no good reason why it shouldn’t exist in principle. Israel isn’t just a generic Western democracy; it’s also the world’s only Jewish state. And its constitution-in-the-making should reflect both halves of its complex identity.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 1, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
I’ve been wondering recently whether I’m simply a hypocrite. After all, I think the world was wrong to close its doors to Jewish refugees during the Nazi era, yet I sympathize with the West’s unwillingness to welcome the seemingly endless stream of desperate people beating on its doors today. So in an effort to determine whether my position has any conceivable justification, I finally read the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951, the foundational document codifying the international obligation to help refugees.
The popular view of this convention is that it protects anyone fleeing genuine danger. Moreover, that’s how many countries seem to have interpreted it in practice. Yet its plain language is far more restrictive than that—so much so that it would arguably exclude most of today’s migrants. And there’s a very good reason for this. But before considering the reason, let’s consider what the convention does and doesn’t say.
Its definition of a refugee has two clauses. The first covers specific groups defined as refugees under previous conventions—victims of the Nazis, Armenian victims of Turkey’s genocide, Russian victims of the Communist regime. The second covers anyone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
That definition has several surprising omissions. Most notably, it never mentions war, though anyone in a war zone obviously faces real and life-threatening danger. This danger, however, doesn’t usually stem from persecution based on race, religion, etc.; rather, it’s inherent in the nature of war, affecting everyone in the area where bombs and bullets are flying. Thus people fleeing war zones seemingly wouldn’t be covered by the convention’s plain text, unless they’ve also been specifically targeted due to race, religion, etc.
Another glaring omission is dictatorship. Though dictatorships do oppress people on the basis of race, religion, etc., many also practice forms of repression that affect all their citizens, rather than targeting specific groups or individuals; think North Korea or Eritrea. Yet according to the convention’s plain text, simply living in an oppressive dictatorship wouldn’t entitle someone to refugee status, unless he were also specifically targeted due to race, religion, etc.
The third noteworthy omission is dysfunctional governments, which are incapable of protecting their citizens. That’s the problem for many of today’s Latin American émigrés, who are fleeing horrific gang violence that their governments can’t seem to stop. Again, the danger that they’re fleeing is real and life-threatening. But the gangs usually don’t target people due to race, religion, etc.; they tyrannize indiscriminately. Hence according to the convention’s plain text, most of their victims also wouldn’t be entitled to refugee status.
If the popular view of the convention were accurate, then it would apply to anyone fleeing war, dictatorship or dysfunctional government since all such people are genuinely endangered. But it’s no oversight that the convention doesn’t cover any of these cases; in fact, it was crafted so narrowly for a very good reason.
The reason is that international law is not a suicide pact. Indeed, it can’t be, because no country would sign an international convention whose terms, if honored, would undermine the country’s well-being. In this case, no country would have signed a convention requiring it to open its doors to a virtually unlimited number of migrants because there are limits to how many people any country can absorb without causing social upheaval.
The expansive definition of “anyone fleeing real danger” would comprise hundreds of millions or even billions of people. If anyone fleeing war were a refugee, for instance, then over the past few years alone, the entire populations of Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic and Iraq would have been entitled to refugee status—and that’s not even an exhaustive list. If anyone fleeing a dictatorship or dysfunctional government were a refugee, the world would have to open its gates to the populations of much of Africa, central Asia and Central America. And as the current backlash to immigration in both America and Europe shows, this is simply more than most countries will ever be willing to do.
Hence the convention’s drafters were careful to choose an inherently limited definition. Groups being persecuted due to race, religion, etc. are almost always comparatively small minorities that the world could manage to absorb—Jews under the Nazis, Yazidis under the Islamic State, Rohingya in Myanmar, and so forth.
Moreover, people targeted on the basis of race, religion, etc., are often the very people most in need of refuge. And if the world can only absorb a limited number of refugees, it makes sense to give priority to those most in need.
The problem with expanding the definition of refugees beyond the convention’s narrow bounds isn’t just that it violates the convention’s plain text, although that’s a danger in itself: If conventions end up entailing obligations far beyond those to which the signatories originally consented, then countries will eventually refuse to sign any convention at all.
The other danger, however, is that if everyone is considered a refugee, then in the end, nobody will be. If refugees are a limited class of people, there’s some hope that other countries can be persuaded to take them in. If they’re an infinite class of people, then ultimately, the world will shut its gates to them all. Indeed, some countries are already doing just that.
The desire to expand the refugee definition is motivated by real concern for people in real danger. But this is a classic case in which, as Voltaire famously said: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” In the real world, only by retaining a narrow definition of refugees will we be able to preserve any protections at all, even for those who need them most.
This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on July 18, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org
The International Committee of the Red Cross, self-appointed guardian of the laws of war, has embarked on an exciting new online project: destroying the very laws it ostensibly seeks to protect. Of course, the ICRC would put it differently; it would say it’s teaching the laws of war. The problem is that the “laws” it teaches aren’t the actual laws of war, as codified in international treaties, but a made-up version that effectively denies countries any right of self-defense against enemies that fight from positions inside civilian populations. And it is thereby teaching anyone unwilling to concede the right of self-defense that the laws of war should simply be ignored.
The website has four sections – “behavior in war,” “medical mission,” “torture” and cultural property.” But the big problem is the first one, which consists of three questions users must answer correctly to receive a “medal of integrity.”
Question number one: “You’re a military commander. The enemy is hiding in a populated village across the front line. Can you attack?” The correct answer, according to the website, is “no.”
This is simply false. The laws of war do not grant immunity to enemy soldiers simply because they choose to hide among civilians, nor do they mandate avoiding any military action that might result in civilian casualties. They merely require that civilians not be deliberately targeted (the principle of distinction), that reasonable efforts be made to minimize civilian casualties, and that any such casualties not be disproportionate to the military benefit of the operation (the principle of proportionality).
The second question was, “What if you know for a fact that many civilians would be killed? Can you attack?” Since the ICRC had already ruled in the first question that attacking populated villages is never permissible, I’m not sure what purpose this question served; it would only make sense if the answer to the first question had been “yes” and this were a follow-up meant to explore the limits of the license to attack populated villages. But let’s ignore that incongruity and examine the question on its own merits.
The ICRC’s answer, of course, was “no.” But the correct answer is “insufficient information.” As noted, the laws of war don’t prohibit civilian casualties as collateral damage of a legitimate military operation. They do, however, require that such casualties not be disproportionate to the military benefit, and the question doesn’t supply the information necessary to determine whether this attack would be proportionate. For instance, how many civilian casualties does “many” actually mean – 10? 100? 1,000? Even more important, what price will your own side pay if it doesn’t attack? For instance, how many of your own civilians might be killed if you don’t stop the enemy’s rocket and mortar fire?
The laws of war were never meant to be a suicide pact; they do not require countries to let their own civilians be slaughtered in order to avoid harming enemy civilians. But in the ICRC’s version, they do. Its website teaches users that military action which harms enemy civilians is never permissible, so all an enemy has to do to slaughter the other side’s civilians with impunity is set up shop among its own civilian population. By that logic, no action should have been taken to stop, say, the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidis, because it operated out of populated villages and couldn’t be dislodged without civilian casualties. Is that truly what the ICRC wants?
Incidentally, using civilians as human shields is a war crime in itself, but you’d never guess that from the website. The implication of the ICRC’s questions is that the laws of war actually encourage using civilians as human shields, because doing so buys you immunity from attack under those very same laws.
Before moving to the third question, the website provides the average scores of respondents from 16 countries on the first two. Unsurprisingly, Israel had the lowest percentage of respondents who gave the “right” answers (followed by America). That’s because Israelis, who are regularly attacked by enemies operating from populated villages, understand better than most that the “right” answers would require them to sit with folded hands while their enemies kill them.
This is highly relevant to the website’s third and final question: “The Geneva Conventions, the core of the international humanitarian law, are now 70 years old. Warfare today is very different; does it still make sense to impose limits in war?” The ICRC’s answer, which I agree with, is “yes.” But limits on warfare will gain wide acceptance only if they still allow for the possibility of effective self-defense. If obeying the laws of war requires letting your own civilians be slaughtered with impunity, no country under attack would agree to do so.
That is precisely the danger of the ICRC’s position. The real laws of war set a challenging but achievable goal: reducing civilian casualties to the minimum consistent with effective military action. But the ICRC’s made-up laws set an impossible goal: avoiding any civilian casualties whatsoever, even if this precludes effective military action. Thus any country that engages in military action would end up violating the ICRC’s laws no matter what steps it takes to minimize civilian casualties. And if so, why even bother to take those steps?
Indeed, this very argument has raged in Israel for years now. Despite Israel’s great efforts to comply with the real laws of war – it “met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries,” a group of high-ranking Western military experts wrote in a report on the 2014 Gaza war – it is repeatedly accused by the UN, “human rights” organizations, and world leaders of grossly violating those laws. Hence many Israelis wonder why they should keep making those efforts, which often increase the risk to their own soldiers and civilians, if they get no international credit for doing so.
The ICRC is not only encouraging terrorists to operate from among civilian populations by granting them immunity; it is also discouraging efforts to comply with the civilian protection measures mandated by the real laws of war. In other words, it’s actually making civilian casualties more likely on two counts – and thereby betraying its own humanitarian mission.
Originally published in Commentary on November 14, 2017
In 2006, three Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were elected to the Palestinian parliament on behalf of the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform party, while a fourth was appointed to the Palestinian cabinet on behalf of that party. Israel responded by revoking their Israeli residency rights.
To most people, this would sound like a no-brainer. Many democracies view serving in a foreign government as grounds for revocation of citizenship because holding a policy-level position in one country’s government is considered to require a level of commitment to that country, which conflicts with one’s loyalty to the other country. Indeed, both America and Israel have such rules for their own citizens in policy-level positions; that’s why, for instance, when Michael Oren became ambassador to the U.S., he had to forfeit his American citizenship, despite the fact that America and Israel are close allies.
But these four Palestinians weren’t just serving in a foreign government; they were doing so on behalf of Hamas – a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction. This, as the Israeli government correctly argued in court, constituted a massive “breach of trust” toward Israel.
Yet the court, in a 6-3 ruling, decided otherwise. Although the Entry into Israel Law allows the government to revoke anyone’s residency rights “at its discretion,” it said the law shouldn’t be used to revoke their residency for “breach of trust.” Why? Because most East Jerusalem Palestinians were born in Israel and had lived there all their lives, so they deserve greater protection than migrants, who have previously lived elsewhere and whose roots in Israel are therefore shallower.
That East Jerusalem Palestinians merit greater protection than, say, labor migrants, is obviously true. Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem back in 1967 so, logically, most of them should be citizens rather than permanent residents. That they aren’t is due to a unique catch-22: Israel cannot unilaterally grant them citizenship without outraging the international community, which wants them to be citizens of a future Palestinian state.
Most East Jerusalem Palestinians are reluctant to exercise their right to apply for citizenship because doing so is viewed by other Palestinians as treason against the Palestinian cause. The result is an entire class of permanent residents who, as the court rightly said, deserve to be treated more like citizens than permanent residents in many respects.
But in this particular case, the court’s otherwise valid distinction is completely irrelevant. After all, the case wasn’t about ordinary East Jerusalem residents, who, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, could reasonably be assumed by the court to view Israel as their primary home. It was specifically about people who chose to serve in a foreign government on behalf of a terrorist organization, and who thereby declared that their allegiance to this foreign entity supersedes their allegiance to Israel.
If you can forfeit citizenship for serving in a foreign government, you can certainly forfeit permanent residency. After all, Hamas officials surely don’t deserve more rights than Israeli ones. Yet that’s exactly what the court gave them: Hamas officials can now retain dual nationality even though their other nationality is Israel’s bitter enemy, while Israeli officials cannot, even when their other nationality is Israel’s close ally.
Moreover, it’s eminently reasonable to expect people who choose to serve in a foreign government to move to that government’s jurisdiction, unless some unusual obstacle prevents them. In this case, no such obstacle existed, as evidenced by the fact that two of them did relocate to Ramallah after losing their Israeli residency (the other two were arrested by Israel on unrelated grounds).
Even the majority justices appeared to realize how irrelevant their argument actually was. In a truly stunning statement, Justice Uzi Vogelman, who wrote the main opinion, said, “Our interpretative decision didn’t focus on the petitioners’ case specifically, but on an interpretive question of general applicability to residents of East Jerusalem.” Quite how any court can decide a case without focusing on that case specifically is beyond me.
Ostensibly, the case at least has limited application. After all, how many East Jerusalem Palestinians are going to become Hamas legislators of cabinet members? But in reality, the implications are broad, because if even swearing allegiance to a foreign government on behalf of a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction isn’t enough to make a Palestinian lose his Israeli residency and its attendant benefits, what on earth would be? Nothing I can think of. Thus, Hamas supporters in Jerusalem will now be emboldened to step up all kinds of activity on the organization’s behalf, secure in the knowledge that they need not fear expulsion from the country as a consequence.
The court’s judicial activism impedes the government’s ability to set policy in almost every walk of life, as I detailed in Mosaic last year, and several rulings over the past few months rightly outraged many members of Israel’s ruling parties. But last week’s ruling may have been a tipping point: In response, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and her Jewish Home party submitted legislation to curb the court’s excesses. Whether it will pass remains to be seen. But this outrageous ruling in defense of Hamas legislators amply shows why it should.
Originally published in Commentary on September 18, 2017
Regardless of whether you support or oppose a new law allowing Israel to bar entry to prominent supporters of anti-Israeli boycotts, one outcome was eminently predictable: Israel would lack the guts to enforce it even when doing so was most justified. That was amply proven by Wednesday’s decision to grant a one-year work visa to Human Rights Watch researcher Omar Shakir. By this decision, Israel eviscerated the one crucial point the law got right, despite the many it got wrong: You cannot wage an effective war on the BDS movement while giving the people behind it a pass. As the old truism goes, people are policy.