40 years later…
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40 years later…

Former Israeli Supreme Court justice talks history in Englewood

Elyakim Rubinstein, left, holds open the Israel-Jordan peace treaty for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to sign as President Bill Clinton looks on during the 1994 ceremony.
Elyakim Rubinstein, left, holds open the Israel-Jordan peace treaty for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to sign as President Bill Clinton looks on during the 1994 ceremony.

It’s August 15, 1992, and Elyakim Rubinstein is in an airplane, flying back to Israel from Washington, D.C., where he met with President George H. W. Bush. Mr. Rubinstein is cabinet secretary to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

And he notes the date.

It is exactly 50 years since most of his father’s family was massacred and buried in a mass grave by Nazis in Belarus.

“And here, 50 years later, I’m with the prime minister, representing the Jewish independent and proud state,” Mr. Rubinstein said last week.

Mr. Rubinstein, an attorney, served the Israeli government for nearly half a century as peace negotiator, cabinet secretary, and Supreme Court justice. He is speaking in Englewood on Sunday, under the auspices of Touro University, where he is a visiting professor. (See box.) On Wednesday morning, he will speak with juniors and seniors at the Frisch School in Paramus.

Mr. Rubinstein, 72, retired from the Supreme Court two years ago. An Orthodox Jew, he is proud of his role in bringing traditional Jewish jurisprudence, or mishpat ivri, into the Israeli legal system.

“Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, so the Knesset’s law is the law of the country,” he said. But Jewish law can be brought in as precedent in court rulings.

His final decision as a Supreme Court justice concerned how much room prisons should allocate to each inmate. “In this particular case, I wrote a lot on the attitude of Jewish law to prisons and prisoners, going back to talmudic texts and responsa in the later centuries,” he said. “It is very relevant to our current lives. Our ancient culture and legal bookshelf should have an input into our jurisprudence.”

Just last week, the deputy chief of the Israeli prison authority called to let him know that the regulations implementing his decision had been finalized.

“It’s a real revolution in the prison authority,” he said. “It makes you, as a justice, very satisfied.”

One difference between the Israeli Supreme Court and its American counterpart is that Israel has a mandatory retirement age: 70.

Another is that the 15 justices, usually meeting in panels of three, not only hear appeals from lower courts, but also receive petitions challenging government decisions. This results in Israeli high court justices having “a workload which is by far bigger. The U.S. Supreme Court takes something like seventy cases a year. We have something like eleven thousand.”

Because its task is to oversee the government on behalf of citizens, “the court is sometimes controversial. Human rights, civil rights cases come straight to the supreme court.”

Mr. Rubinstein’s family includes lawyers. His wife, Miriam, was a senior lawyer for the deputy state attorney. Their oldest daughter, who has died, was a human rights lawyer dealing with asylum seekers. He has a son-in-law who is a lawyer in the government.

Elyakim Rubinstein

But his own entry into law and, thereafter, government came about by happenstance.

“I finished high school young and did my undergraduate degree before the army,” he said. After graduating, he still had one year left before joining the army. “I was reading a book on the campus of Hebrew University. Two friends who had just finished the army were passing by. They said they were going to register for the law school. I said, ‘I’ll join you.’”

His undergraduate studies, in Arabic and Hebrew linguistics and philology, proved useful when he was a peace negotiator, first as chief of staff to Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan at Camp David.

“In negotiations, respect — honor — is a very major pillar,” he said. “When the other side knows that you know their culture, know their language, know some poetry, know how to quote the Quran, they see that you have respect for their culture, for their religion, for their roots. It reflects on their attitude. It definitely has been helpful.”

In his Englewood talk, Mr. Rubinstein will look back at the Camp David negotiations, which culminated in the accords that Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed on September 17, 1978, leading to the peace treaty with Egypt that was signed the following March.

“The good news is that it’s been sustained for these 40 years,” Mr. Rubinstein said. “After 30 years and five wars with Egypt and a lot of casualties and a lot of pain, we had this major strategic change,” Mr. Rubinstein said.

“I remember being in the airport in Israel five years after Camp David. There was a minister from our government who originally opposed Camp David. He said, ‘Look, although I opposed it, if we sustain it for 15 years it will be worthwhile.’

“Thank God, it has been 40 years. The quality of the peace is not what we were hoping for, in terms of human relations, visits, cultural exchanges, and so on. But as far as the strategic part of peace, the security aspect, thank God it’s holding and it’s okay. At the end of the day, it’s good news.”

So too is the fact that the peace accord he helped negotiate with Jordan has held up.

Mr. Rubinstein recalled that at Camp David, it wasn’t clear that there would be an agreement “almost until the last moment. We weren’t sure the agreement was going to happen.”

A Friday night Shabbat dinner with Prime Minister Begin was another highlight of the 13-day conference.

“He made Kiddush. He made me say Motzi. He had this Jewish aura about him. For instance, when we signed the agreement, he put on his yarmulke and said ‘Shir Hama’alot,’ the whole very moving chapter of Psalms.

“In the last days of the conference, President Carter was working on the text with Aharon Barak, who was then just finishing his tenure as attorney general and was later chief justice, and with an Egyptian negotiator. Barak would come to the delegation and get Begin’s view. It was a kind of ridiculous exercise. There were something like 23 drafts on the table.”

As a civil servant rather than a politician, Mr. Rubinstein worked for leaders of different parties. As cabinet secretary, “I worked with Shamir and then with Rabin,” he said. (Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister after Begin.)

Formally, as cabinet secretary, “you prepare the agenda of the cabinet,” he said. “You draft the resolutions of the cabinet. You deal with the ministerial committee decisions. You’re a spokesman for the government and you coordinate the government’s work with the Knesset.

“The informal part relates to your relationship with the prime minister. If you have the prime minister’s confidence, you can do a lot of things. I was a peace negotiator. I was the founding chairman of our national anti-drug authority. I chaired our monitoring of anti-Semitism. I participated in our strategic stalks with the United States.

“The peace negotiations were a major part of the work, mainly with Jordan and the Palestinians.”

As to the current state of relations with the Palestinians, Mr. Rubinstein said that he “was personally skeptical about Oslo. Many people — and me too — were hoping that something good would come out of it. That hasn’t been fulfilled.

“One shouldn’t lose hope. Before Sadat came to Jerusalem nobody knew he was going to come. We were surprised to a great extent. We should still sustain the hope.”

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