Power to the People

Heads of the Movement for Governability and Democracy – Meshilut, talk about adversity and motivation, achievements and upcoming goals.

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

Power to the People
Power to the People
צילום: מרים צחי

Two young men have been making the Chief Legal Advisors sweat over the past few years.

These men exposed problematic behavior by state attorneys and the Israeli High Court of Justice and they have given the Chief Legal Advisor and senior judges a big headache and caused them much embarrassment.

The force behind the Movement for Governability and Democracy, or Meshilut - which has arrived on the scene to stop the rule of bureaucrats – consists of two young men with a great dream of bringing sovereignty back to the citizens of Israel. Yehuda Amrani (31), a manager of non-profit organizations sent out an email stating that he was seeking a lawyer for legal advice on behalf of a non-profit organization targeted at tackling the lack of governability in Israel. Simcha Rothman (36), who is a lawyer, gladly heeded the call; Mr. Rothman who had interned with the Ministry of Justice and worked with the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations.

Four years after Meshilut started its operation, we sat down with Yehuda Amrani, director of operations and with the movement's legal advisor, Simcha Rothman, to sum up the first four years. It seems that there is no better place to conduct this interview than the Knesset corridors.

How did it all start out?

Mr. Amrani: "We set up shop four years ago, with two laptop computers. Our office was our laptop; it was also the total sum of our office equipment. This is how we got started. People were drawn to this idea very quickly, three additional employees joined the staff of Meshilut, and we now have an office located in Jerusalem."

Anyone who thinks that an organization with deep pockets is behind the four years of activity, with a cash flow equivalent to that of the Israel Democracy Institute, would be sorely mistaken. Meshilut receives less than $100,000 in donations. Meshilut employees make do with modest salaries not much higher than minimum wages.

Where do your donations come from?

Mr. Amrani: "Donations come from good Jews, some of whom live overseas, they believe in Meshilut's ideas. We also receive small sums from a few private citizens. There is no big organization that financially supports us behind the scenes."

Mr. Amrani: "A Knesset Member from UTJ told us, that the time has come for wealthy donors to stop giving only to yeshivas and synagogues and start donating to organizations like ours. People don't understand how much influence a movement like ours has and how far this influence can span if our resources are increased."

No Separation of Powers

What made you decide to establish the movement?

Mr. Amrani: "We established Meshilut because we saw how despondent Israeli citizens have become. We saw the lack in governability that hits the people of this country hard in every field; in politics, economics, security, and elsewhere. There are laws that are not enforced because the Chief Legal Advisor considers them unimportant or simply no good.

The High Court of Justice revokes bills because it considers them unreasonable, the State Attorney's Office interferes rudely where it does not belong. The principle of separation of powers has become more eroded every day."

What are the goals of Meshilut?

Mr. Rothman: "Our goal is to return the power to the people, to give the reins back to the citizens via their representatives – members of the Knesset. The people democratically elected Knesset members so they should run the country, and our goal is to help these elected officials to realize their democratic right of conducting the affairs of this country. It is inconceivable that people who have not been elected by the public can force elected officials to implement policies in which they do not believe and which the people has no interest in."

What if the people is wrong?

Mr. Rothman smiles: "Well, then G-d can replace it with another people, if He wishes. The people have the right to be wrong."

During the Disengagement plan from Gaza, harsh claims were raised against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, claiming that he misled his voters and implemented a futile program that caused much harm the residents of Gush Katif and the entire State of Israel.

According to claims by Israelis aligned with both the Left and the Right, this plan was hatched by Mr. Sharon only to save his skin from police investigations that were hovering over him at the time. Yossi Sarid, who was the leader of left-wing Meretz political party coined the phrase "the destruction goes as deep as the investigation", which later became a slogan used against the Disengagement program by right-wing activists.

Doesn't the expulsion prove the claim that elected officials' power should be limited?

Mr Rothman: "On the contrary. Ariel Sharon's conduct was a paramount case for Meshilut. Yossi Sarid's statement garnered support across the board from all political parties. Mr. Sarid claimed that Prime Minister Sharon did not believe in the Disengagement plan and that he had no interest in it, however, he tried to save his own skin by implementing it when he became a subject of criminal investigation. Who was he trying to save himself from? The police, the State Attorney's Office, the courts, and the media. He believed that if he took a sharp turn to the left, they would all be more forgiving towards his corruption and criminal activity. We all remember the statement by journalist Amnon Abramovich, who said that Mr. Sharon must be guarded like an Etrog.

How could the expulsion have been prevented by increasing governability?

"The question is not whether an increased governability could have prevented the expulsion, but rather whether the elected officials who voted for this plan and promoted it actually believed it was good for Israel. Did the legal advisors, police, State Attorney's office and media have Mr. Sharon held by his throat and was this the reason the plan was promoted against the will of the voters? The end result, as we said earlier, should reflect what the people wants, and this may not have been what happened with the disengagement plan."

Bureaucrats Are Not Always Clean

Towards the end of the last Knesset session, a bill by MK Betzalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) was prepared for second and third readings, forcing senior public servants to provide statements of capital, just like MKs and members of cabinet. From now on, also judges, senior officers with the police and military, senior officials in the Tax Authority, government ministries, local government, and so on will be included in the bill. The bill was drafted with the help of Meshilut, which worked hard to muster up a majority for this bill comprised of members of all Knesset parties.

How important is this bill?

Mr. Rothman: "Many people have a common misconception, according to which elected officials are corrupt but civil servants are squeaky clean and they need to protect the public from the corrupt Knesset members. Such a concept is totally absurd. Members of Knesset can be replaced, it is a lot less efficient to bribe an elected official, with a temporary position, than bribing a judge, for instance, whose position is guaranteed until he retires. The same demands for public purity and forthrightness that are required of senior elected officials should be required of non-elected senior officials. The notion that experts or judges have no self-interests when they offer their opinion on bills or are asked to promote policy is inherently flawed. They are all human beings and an open eye should be kept on everyone."

Mr. Amrani: "Take the trial of (former Prime Minister) Ehud Olmert, for example. People perceive Mr. Olmert as an exemplar of the corruption of elected officials. However, they forget that the greatest corruption was not committed by of Mr. Olmert but by the municipal engineer. There is a lot of scrutiny and inspection regarding the work of Knesset members while it is virtually nonexistent for public servants. Knesset members are required to meet high standards of transparency. However, no such transparency is required from judges."

Are you aligned with any specific political party or political camp?

Mr. Rothman: "Of course, as private citizens we have our own political opinions. For instance, I live in Pnei Kedem, in Gush Etzion and Yehuda lives in Psagot. But as a movement, we make sure to avoid any political alignment. We serve all political parties with no exceptions. We have cooperated with MK Betzalel Smotrich on one side of the aisle and with MK Ahmad Tibi on the other. We have worked with Bayit Yehudi and Likud but also with Yesh Atid, Zionist Bloc, Meretz and the Joint Arab List as well. We understand that they have all been elected by the public and are equally hurt by limited governability."

Can you give us an example of operations you shared with MKs from the Left?

"We cooperated with MK Tzipi Livni, for instance, to promote the statutory status of the Commission for Prosecutorial oversight. We worked to achieve this with all Knesset parties. I must mention MK Yael German who fought over every article on this bill. Meretz also submitted a bill drafted by us regarding publishing opinions submitted to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, led by MK Michal Rozin."

Mr. Amrani divides Meshilut's operations into three fields: The first is Knesset activity. We follow bills drafted in the Knesset and actively participate in Knesset Committees. We also promote bills drafted by our members. Secondly, our research department, which conducts qualitative and quantitative studies to indicate governability flaws and non-democratic behavior of non-elected officials in the public sector. Our third field of activity is with the media. Mr. Amrani: "We try to instill the awareness that people's democratic right to influence policy and make changes is stolen from them by non-elected elements. Only when the public wakes up and understands that it is being robbed of its right to be self-governed, will there be change and the rule of bureaucrats will come to an end."

The Cat and The Cream

In recent months, Deputy Chief Legal Advisor Dina Zilber has repeatedly made headlines for interfering and intimidating organizations that employ gender separation. What do you think about this?

Mr. Rothman: "This is an excellent example of a situation where a legal advisor decided to promote a personal agenda that does not correspond with the law. The law against discrimination in goods and services explicitly states that gender separation is not considered discrimination but Ms. Zilber ignores the letter of the law and relies on a very broad interpretation of a cabinet resolution instead of the law. Even though anyone who ever took high school civics knows that cabinet resolutions cannot nullify a law. She sends letters with edicts and reproaches to municipalities that are not even in her jurisdiction, even though we have commented on this many times."

However, criticism of Ms. Zilber does not only focus on gender separation. Members of Meshilut have initiated and promoted a bill for prosecutorial oversight, which was passed in the recent Knesset winter session. In recent years, a prosecutorial oversight body has been active, however it was not statutory. The state attorneys even boycotted the oversight body and refused to cooperate with it. This bill was passed despite the state attorneys.

Why is this bill so important?

Mr. Amrani: "Every government organization in Israel is subject to oversight and audit. Only the state attorneys refused any oversight of their work. This lack of scrutiny is the root cause of much injustice in the work of the prosecution. Many rights, such as those of crime victims or the right for a hearing have been trampled by the State Attorney’s Office without any scrutiny or oversight."

Can you share an interesting study that you have conducted?

Mr. Amrani: "We have conducted a study of the process of appointing senior officials in the civil service. All appointments of senior officials must be authorized by the Chief Legal Advisor's office, ensuring there are no conflicts of interest, that the nominee meets qualifications, and so on. Our study discovered that appointments in the Ministry of Justice must also be authorized by the Chief Legal Advisor.

In other words, the Chief Legal Advisor makes the appointments and oversees these same appointments. We claim that this is not good governance and that this invites corruption. According to the State Comptroller's report from last year, former Chief Legal Advisor Yehuda Weinstein participated in the nomination committee of Prosecutorial Oversight Commissioner Hila Gerstel despite the conflict of interests that should have prevented him from doing so. Who authorized this nomination? Dina Zilber, Weinstein's deputy. She was the proverbial cat who authorized the proverbial cream."

Six months ago, Chief Legal Advisor Mandelblit promoted a cabinet motion regarding nomination committees. You opposed his motion and succeeded in curtailing it. How come?

Mr. Rothman: "It seemed like Mr. Mandelblit had a good idea. He wanted to ascertain that ministers would not pressure the nomination committee to accept candidates due to their relationship with the corresponding minister. However, this motion is preposterous. Mr. Mandelblit wants to state that if there is "any relationship" between any one of the ministers and one of the nominees it will be enough for the committee to make the decision on its own instead of nominating three candidates like it had always done.

This is an extreme resolution: any relationship with any one of the ministers even if he is not the corresponding minister, even if this candidate is not nominated or elected – this motion takes the authority from the cabinet members and dictates who should be nominated. We blocked this motion with our own bodies, so to speak."

Mr. Amrani: "Take the current head of the Israeli Tax Authority. He may be doing an excellent job, but he was not appointed by his minister. The nomination committee proposed only one candidate for the job. Minister Steinitz, who was Minister of Finance at the time, believed that the candidate was not suited to the job and he demanded that the committee nominate other candidates. This candidate petitioned the High Court of Justice claiming that there is no reason not to pick him. The High Court of Justice interfered and seized all legal authority from the Minister of Finance and compelled Mr. Steinitz, to hire this candidate, despite his own judgment."

Mr. Rothman: "It is absurd, when I tell colleagues from abroad that the High Court of Justice interferes in nominations, they don't understand what is going on here. They have never heard of anything like it. Such interference on the part of the judicial branch in resolutions made by the executive branch to such an extent is unheard of anywhere else in the world."

All Hail The Chief Legal Advisor

Do you feel that the Chief Legal Advisor is not satisfied with advising and he would rather dictate policy to the government?

Mr. Amrani: "No doubt. Legal advisors allow themselves to inform cabinet members they do not intend on defending their bills in court. Instead of advising, they try to make members of cabinet bow down to them. There have also been cases when the legal advisors represented the government making arguments that are the complete opposite of the government's opinion. Before the last elections, a new chief of police was supposed to be appointed instead of Chief Danino who had completed his term. Domestic Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich started the process of finding a candidate before anyone even dreamt of elections. Just as he was going to appoint a replacement, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced new elections.

With absolutely no legal precedent, Chief Legal Advisor Weinstein announced that appointing a new chief of police should wait until a new cabinet is formed. This resulted in Israeli police having no permanent chief for many months. We appealed to the High Court of Justice against the government and demanded that it appoints a new police chief, as there is no legal basis for the Chief Legal Advisor’s resolution against this. The state attorney representative claimed in court that the government's position is that there is no reason to appoint a new chief of police during elections. This is a complete opposite of the actual position of the Minister of Home Defense, according to his own very explicit instructions."

Mr. Rothman: "Every passing election sees the Chief Legal Advisor increase the span of his authority. The law has no restrictions on transitional cabinets. However, with each election campaign the Chief Legal Advisor corrodes more of its authority. Initially, the Chief Legal Advisor forbid transitional governments from making appointments, but now it was forbidding appointments made by cabinets even before the elections took place. Today, people are expressing concern over things Obama may do between the US elections and the time his administration is replaced. The largest democracy in the world does not have any restrictions over transitional cabinets, while in our little democracy restrictions are stifling citizens in increasing measures and government branches are being paralyzed for extended periods of time."

Your greatest achievement in the recent year revolves around actions by deputy Chief Legal Advisors Dina Zilber and Orit Koren, which ultimately culminated with a reprimand from the Israeli Bar Association Ethics Committee. Is this story really over?

This is a story that has shaken the top echelon of the Ministry of Justice. We chose to take up this case because of the stark violation of the law allegedly committed by the most senior officials who were supposed to protect the law as well as the severe violation of civil liberties. A comprehensive report by former Commissioner Gerstel examined the function of the State Attorney’s Office, which tried to prevent Dr. Maya Forman Reznik from being appointed deputy director of the National Forensics Institute. It seems that that Dr. Forman Reznik's only sin was holding a different position from that of the prosecutors about the "serrated knife" in the Tair Radah murder case (Zadorov trial, A.G.).

The Ministry of Justice did everything they could to make sure that this pathologist was not hired for the job. Dr. Forman Reznik's request to authorize her appointment to the Forensics Institute was deliberated in labor court, Dr. Chen Kugel, director of the National Forensic Institute, who knew Dr. Forman Reznik from previous work together, was asked to supply a deposition on Dr. Forman Reznik's professional skills. Dr. Kugel, as a civil servant, gave his deposition with the State Attorney’s Office.

Unfortunately for the state attorneys, Dr. Kugel's position did not correspond with their own agenda and with the green light from deputy Chief Legal Advisors Ms. Zilber and Ms. Koren, Dr. Kugel was asked to amend his signed deposition. In other words, allegedly witness tampering and obstruction of justice were committed here. Dr. Kugel refused to amend his deposition and ultimately, Dr. Forman Reznik won her lawsuit and took up the position.

"Commissioner Gerstel actually exposed these serious attempts within the inner offices of the Ministry of Justice in her report. Following this evidence, we filed a complaint with the police and the Ethics Committee of the Israel Bar Association. The police informed us that Chief Legal Advisor Weinstein made the decision to close the case.

His conflict of interest with his deputies did not stop him from deciding on this matter. There was absolutely no police investigation as would be expected. The State Attorney's office informed Meshilut that it was not Weinstein who had closed the case, it was the police. These conflicting versions fit in very well with the entire conduct of the authorities in this case.

"It was actually the Bar Association's Ethics Committee that dealt with the case in an unbiased matter and demanded answers from the deputies and everyone else involved in this case. Ultimately, the Ethics Committee found an ethical fault in the conduct of the deputies.

"Only recently, after months that the State Attorney's Office has avoided supplying a response, which would allow for an appeal process, Meshilut is gearing towards a petition to the High Court of Justice in demand of employing due process in investigating these senior officials and prosecuting them. The groundbreaking resolution of the ethics committee is a reminder to all attorneys, that working for the government does not give an exemption from legal conduct and good governance."

A final question: Do you think that restriction of governability is increasing or are these problems slowly being solved?

"We are happy to say that in the past two years, awareness of the restrictions in governability that lead to restriction of democracy have gained a prominent place in Israeli discourse. The public and its elected officials now understand more than ever the problems and necessary solutions.

The public understands the meaning of exceeding one's authority, good governance, judicial and advisory activism and it now takes note of such matters. However, we have a long way to go yet until all the necessary changes are made and a lot depends on the Israeli voters who must place this issue at the top of their demands from their elected officials.”