'Years from now, we'll all regret the major effect this has'

Histadrut Jurist Union Chairman Yitzchak Gordon explains why they emphatically protest proposed law change.

Mordechai Sones ,

Yitzchak Gordon
Yitzchak Gordon
צילום: Meir Elipur

The Histadrut Jurist's Union held an explanatory meeting and protest by civil service jurists in front of the Knesset and Finance Ministry. The protest was held following the labor dispute declared by the Union, in part due to unilateral measures the State continues to take, undermining civil service jurist's status and conditions of employment.

Histadrut Jurist's Union Chairman Yitzchak (Yitzy) Gordon spoke to Arutz Sheva about the proposed law to change the manner of selecting legal advisors in government ministries, which was discussed in the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee: "The proposed changes will weaken the legal advisors/advisory in government departments, affecting their critical role as 'gatekeepers'. The changes will also block their advancement up the professional ladder in the civil service, severely infringing their rights. The Jurist's Union joins the firm opposition expressed by the Attorney General to the proposed law."

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit stopped at the protest near the Knesset entrance to express support for the jurist's struggle on his way to the Knesset Constitution Committee.

Mandelblit was present for the meeting headed by MK Slomiansky to express his opposition to the bill that would change the manner of appointing legal advisors to government ministries.

According to the proposed law initiated by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the legal counsel selection process will be changed from a tender procedure currently used like most civil service appointments, to an appointment by the minister in charge of the given ministry, based on a recommendation of search committee procedure on which the minister has a greater influence.

"It's not so much the Government Legal Advisor being targeted here as it's the concept of legal advice to the government that's under attack, meaning the whole public service legal system," Gordon told Arutz Sheva. "It would weaken the lawyers in all the various government offices, who are gatekeepers, and it's not going to allow them to be gatekeepers.

"It's a very critical position because it's not an issue of right-wing or left-wing, it's a matter of corruption and using public funds and making sure things are run the right way. You don't have government offices and department where the legal advisors make the political decisions the way they're trying to describe it in the political system, as if the lawyers or jurists come in instead of the ministers; it's not at all the case.

"You have government departments where the day-to-day work is appointments and allocating funds and tenders, and all these things need gatekeepers to oversee and make sure it's run the right way and legally. If you neutralize the gatekeepers, who are lawyers who are not political but civil servants, and who today are not appointed by the minister but by a regular tender put out by the Civil Service, then there won't be anyone to stop these things and make sure it's kosher and it's done well.

"That's why this whole thing is a misrepresentation. I don't know when the religious Zionist world became anti-legal system, because the Prophets over the millennia always spoke as one of their main points against corruption, bribery, fraud, misuse of power, etc. That's what Judaism was all about: To be honest and pure in public office, to be obligated to serve the community and to serve society as a public servant.

"Now the right-wing religious Zionist world is coming out more and more attacking the legal system and demonizing the Civil Service lawyers as if they're there to work against the system and to undermine the ministers, and it's just not true.

"It's really absurd, as one who worked for many years in the Civil Service's legal system. The Justice Ministry and various legal departments are full of knit-kippah lawyers and all kinds of lawyers. To somehow describe it as if the public legal advisory system is left-wing, and they're there to undermine the ministers, it's just not true; it's really absurd.

"The only thing this bill will achieve is weaken the system and allow corruption to spread, because the gatekeepers, the lawyers within the system were there to make sure everything was kosher - now, they'll be chosen by the minister himself and not according to the regular Civil Service system. The lawyers will be obligated to the minister who chose them, and they won't be able to be gatekeepers. Then what's going to happen is that for the lawyers in the system it won't be worthwhile to stay or to work hard and be great lawyers as they are today. People will start leaving, and the whole system will lose the good lawyers because there'll be no reason to stay within the system. Then, if you don't have good, quality legal departments then the whole Civil Service system collapses. They don't realize that it's not a right- vs. left-wing issue at all - it's in everyone's interest to have a good, professional legal Civil Service.

"It's absurd, because what do they think? It's such a nearsighted way to view this: Now the right-wing is in power, they're all excited, and they're saying 'let's get legal advisors who are our kind of people, and they'll give the okay for anything we want.' Then tomorrow, another month, another year, there'll be a different party, a different minister in the government department, and then they start doing things that aren't so kosher, and the right-wing will find themselves out of the specific government department with no lawyer out there trying to make sure things are done properly. Then everyone's going to regret this move, which is undermining a 70-year Civil Service legal advisory system.

"As Chairman of the Jurist's Union, I represent the lawyers in the Civil Service, and from my perspective I see the entire picture from within the system. First of all I really care about the legal system, I've been in it for years, I see how important it is for our country and our society and it's very important for me to preserve it.

"Another aspect is that you have good people inside, and if those good people won't be able to advance and move up the professional ladder, they'll just leave the system. Until now they had the ability to apply through tenders like all other civil servants. So if you're good, and professional, you move up and therefore you want to be in the system and you want to stay on.

"Now, suddenly you take the top of the ladder and you say, 'No more'. If you're good, and you're heading up the ladder, you're not going to get anywhere. Only if you're a yes-man and you okay things that shouldn't be okayed, that's the only way for you to get ahead, because now it's not the Civil Service professional system but the ministers who will choose the legal advisors. People won't be able to advance and so they'll just leave. It also affects their rights because they have a right to move forward within the system, and such changes within the system cannot be made without discussing it with the Union and seeing the implications of it. They just did the whole thing unilaterally without thinking it through. It affects the whole system and I, as head of the Union, have to stand up to this.

"The Attorney General, who's the head of the legal advisory system, knows and sees how dangerous this is for the rule of law, for fighting corruption, and for the whole Civil Service to work properly. That's why he came down himself and he opposed these bills. I agree with him. We appreciate that he's standing up because he's the last fence to stop this thing. Years from now, if this goes through, we're going to all regret the major effect this has."

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich on Monday spoke before the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee to express support for the proposed law.

"The attempts to claim that people don't come with their own package and perspective on democracy and legislation, and claiming that this doesn't influence them, is just a way to fake innocence," Smotrich said.

He also noted that the conflict's root was exposed during a discussion regarding the accepted political agenda within the justice system.

"Law is not a machine, there are different legitimate stances within the legal arena," Smotrich said. "Within this arena, there's room for the agenda which the legal official comes from. It's not by accident that within this room, the Left supports the status quo, while within the legal guild and on the right there is a push for change. It's a fact.

"When choosing between legitimate legal stances, there will definitely be some of us who share the place where the person is coming from - whether social or ideological - and therefore, legal advisers bring their own legal agenda with them, not in the simplistic sense of right or left but in their entire world view."

Gordon does not share this view. "A true professional is chosen because he's a professional, and not because he's right-wing or left-wing or has a political agenda," he counters. "He works with his professional opinion and gives the minister above him the different options and tells him whether something can be done or cannot be done. That's what the legal advisors do today, exactly because they're not chosen politically but professionally.

"If Smotrich gets his way, then any legal advisor chosen will be chosen because of his political agenda. Think about it: Every couple of years when a minister changes office and a new minister comes in, he won't have a professional legal advisor there from the former minister - he'll have a political one, and all the lawyers underneath him will also have fallen into line with the political agenda of their superior so as not to lose their job, and the good ones will have left. Then we will be left with a rotten unprofessional legal system that won't be able to serve any minister the right way.

"The legal advisors today give sound legal advice to the ministers, advise them of their various options, and help the ministers implement their policy. It's only in rare cases when something is simply not legitimate, not legal - then the legal advisor has no choice and says, 'Look, you can't do this,' and - even in those rare cases where something is blatantly illegal, which actually we'd all want him to stop, even in those cases the minister has a right to turn to the Attorney General and ask for his ruling on the matter. So even in those rare cases it's not the legal advisor in the government department who'll be making the final call, but the Attorney General.

"So it's not an agenda issue, and turning it into an agenda issue and a political and personal belief issue is exactly what this government bill will do. It will turn legal advisors into political nominations, and it will turn the whole system under them from a professional system presenting the legal options of what can and can't be done into a political system. No-one will have any respect or regard for what the public legal system has to say, it'll be a disaster."

But can we deny that everyone who comes to the job has his own political coloring? And that leftists may tend to take unkosher advantage of their position as "activists" more than, say, the more docile knit kippahs will?

"People aren't colored politically. You have judges and lawyers who don't go around discussing politics all day, and people who to this day no-one knows what their politics are. It's just our tendency to go around and color everybody in a certain political hue, that's part of the problem here in Israel, that people are always trying to say, 'Aha, you have a kippah, you must be this; aha, you live in Tel Aviv, you must be that. Enough of that! Who knows what's going on inside? If you try to screen every person according to their agenda, it's Big Brother already. If everyone who applies to any job in any field, any professional has to undergo a political vetting then there's no end to it. It doesn't work that way, and if you don't believe in the basic ability of a person to be a professional and do his job that way, there won't be any professionalism. Think about it: Do you want to say a doctor will make a medical decision according to his belief if the patient is Jewish or Arab? Some things aren't allowed to cloud your judgement, and if you don't believe in human ability to do that then there's a big problem, you can't build any system.

"So to take people and say, 'This is a right-wing lawyer, so a right-wing minister will bring him in', then two years later the government falls and the new government brings in a left-wing one - there's no end to it. The system won't work, you need stability. We have a Civil Service that's been working for seventy years; a stable, professional Civil Service. What's not stable is the ministers who keep changing every two years - if there was no stable Civil Service, then everything would fall apart. It's the only thing that gives continuity when you have such frequent and drastic changes.

"If you want to change the head of the legal system in every government office every two years, there'll be no long-term planning and working, and there'll be no organizational memory. You need professionals. They advise every day what the options are without bringing in their politics. If you don't believe in that, you can't run any system in society," Gordon concluded.