Israel's highest court in spotlight as right celebrates 50 years of settlement

Instead of clarifying that they are against the government’s occupation policy, Israeli centrist and leftist politicians apologized for avoiding the ceremony celebrating the settlement enterprise.

al-monitor Israeli security forces stand guard during a demonstration organized by Peace Now in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Sept. 27, 2017. Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images.

Sep 27, 2017

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Miriam Naor did the right thing when she decided to cancel Justice Neal Hendel’s participation at the jubilee celebration marking the liberation of Judea, Samaria, the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights, which took place in the Etzion settlement bloc on Sept. 27.

Naor demonstrated courage and stately manner when she refused to give in to political pressures by the right to overturn her decision. She stood firm even when pressured by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who accused her of “damaging the official nature of the event.” In fact, Naor decided to cancel Hendel’s participation once she realized that the event was not official in character, as proclaimed by its organizers, but a mere political celebration of the right-wing camp. Indeed, statements by Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the event for annexing West bank territories confirmed this impression.

Before making her decision, Naor consulted with the person expected to replace her next month as the court’s president, Associate Justice Esther Hayut. They both knew that canceling the Supreme Court's participation would lead to attacks on Israel's highest judicial body from the right and accusations that the court identified with the left. Nevertheless, Naor did the right thing.

As one of the harshest critics of the Supreme Court in the past few years, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin was quick to lash out at the justices. He said, "If anyone had any doubt, it was made perfectly clear yet again today that the justices of the Supreme Court bring a personal, left-wing political agenda into the courtroom."

The event was hosted by Shlomo Neeman, the head of the Etzion Regional Council. He could not have asked for a better promotional campaign than the media storm surrounding the Supreme Court's decision. He responded by lashing out at the justices with especially harsh language: "We always said that when it came to the settlements, they did not issue rulings. They made their own laws, using their exalted position as justices of the Supreme Court to advance an ideological agenda."

The fact that the ceremony was held in the Judea West Bank region, and not in some region that is part of the consensus of Israel's Jewish population, like the Jordan Valley or the Golan Heights, was the main decision that turned this into a political event. The argument that government funding is what makes this "official" does not pass muster. Culture Minister Miri Regev of the Likud and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, have transformed their ministries into political arms, implementing their personal and party agendas. Almost every day, Regev delegitimizes works of art that do not reflect her personal worldview, while Bennett works regularly to introduce religious elements into the secular state curriculum.

The conclusion that the event in the West Bank was as far from official as possible is hardly an exaggeration. All anyone has to do is to listen to Regev’s radio ad (which was rejected by several stations because of its controversial content and factual inaccuracies) to realize that it is entirely political and under the auspices of the country's right-wing parties. "I am delighted to tell you about the government's decision to mark the jubilee of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, the Jordan Valley and the Cave of the Patriarch," Regev declared in a festive announcement. "We have returned to the Cave of the Patriarchs and Beit El. We have returned to Gamla and Jericho. We have returned to these historic lands. We have returned home. I invite you to join Israel's finest artists by participating in a moving official ceremony in Gush Etzion to celebrate the start of events marking this jubilee year throughout the country."

Naor explained her decision with a simple, terse statement: "The justice system is prevented from participating in any event that is controversial to the public, especially when the entire stage is devoted to just one side of the debate." In contrast, leaders of the center-left parties, who announced that they would not participate, could be heard twisting and apologizing for their absence. They did not want to be portrayed as any less Zionist or patriotic than the right.

Zionist Camp Chairman Avi Gabbay devoted a long Facebook post to the issue. In it, he explained that even though the right depicts him as an enemy of the settlements, he participated in a dialogue with Bennett before Tisha B'Av (a day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples), in the settlement of Efrat in the Etzion settlement bloc, and was criticized by the left for it. He also reminded his followers that "just a few months ago, the Zionist Camp visited Gush Etzion and reiterated our commitment to the principle that this bloc of settlements will remain under Israeli sovereignty forever."

In fact, Gabbay devoted an entire paragraph of his Facebook post to the series of events, beginning with him receiving an invitation to the ceremony. He then brought up a previous commitment he had to participate in a huge gathering in Beersheba, which took place at the same time. He later said that he allowed all Zionist Camp Knesset members to follow their conscience with regard to this controversial event and concluded with: "This is how a divisive government that sows discord and incitement turns an event that should be official into a photo op and an attempt to foment discord where there is none. … Those are the facts. Everything is falsehoods and political gamesmanship. Well, we will not play those games."

Despite all of his convoluted explanations, Gabbay is actually playing the game, and he added fuel to the spin by the right at his expense.

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid fell into the same trap. In an equally long post, he wrote about how surprised he was to learn from the press that Yesh Atid was planning to boycott the ceremony. "I was angry," Lapid wrote. "Obviously, the report was completely wrong. Yesh Atid is represented in all the settlements. … We have branches for party activists throughout Judea and Samaria, in Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim, etc. … How could I boycott myself?"

According to Lapid, Yesh Atid announced that it would be sending Knesset member Haim Jelin to the ceremony as its representative. He then added, "Someone asked me if I would speak at the ceremony, if I was asked. My answer is, 'Of course, with pleasure. Why not?'"

In his post, Lapid accused the staff of the Prime Minister's Office, claiming that they put out that "ugly and divisive story." Summing up his position, he wrote, "We are not leftists. We are not against the settlements (even though we believe that separation from the Palestinians is the best way to protect the settlement blocs)."

It is too bad that Lapid felt a need to apologize for not participating personally in a political event organized by right-wing settlers. Like Gabbay, he is concerned about losing voters from the soft right, but both he and Gabbay are wrong. Their obsequious behavior will not make them any more attractive to any sector on the political spectrum. How simple and dignified it would be to act like the Zionist Camp co-leader Tzipi Livni. In an interview with Army Radio, she laid out her position very simply, saying that she was not willing to be "part of a backdrop for the right."

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