Ignoring criticism by the Justice Ministry, a panel of the Prime Minister’s Office has decided to appoint settlement leader Pinhas Wallerstein to head a team charged with legalizing unauthorized outposts in the West Bank.
In October, the PMO’s appointments panel recommended Wallerstein to the post, despite his involvement in illegal construction in a settlement, for which he was sharply rebuked by the High Court.
As head of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, Wallerstein initiated the construction in the settlement of Ofra of a sewage treatment center, built on privately owned Palestinian land In 2007 he explicitly admitted, in a meeting with the environment minister, that he knew the facility was being built on privately owned Palestinian land. The state however reached a plea bargain with him, and his successor in the job, Avi Roeh, under which neither would face trial and would instead be fined a mere 2,500 shekels each.
The decision to appoint Wallerstein to the post provoked a reproach from the Justice Ministry which said the appointment was rife with problems. The new job calls for adhering to the very laws that Wallerstein was accused of violating.
Just two months before the panel recommended Wallerstein to the job, the High Court slammed him for his conduct in the Ofra case. In a petition demanding that Wallerstein and Roeh be prosecuted for their actions in Ofra, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, wrote that Wallerstein had demonstrated contempt and disregard for basic principles of the rule of law, and caused serious and prolonged damage to the property rights of the petitioners.
Although the petition to prosecute Wallerstein and Roeh was ultimately dismissed, Hayut wrote that the scales were heavily tipped towards trial, noting that the two had knowingly handed out permits they didn’t have the authority to issue. She accused the two of moral laxness. Justice Daphne Barak-Erez added that breaking the law is never legitimate, even when driven by ideology or other motives not connected with personal gain.
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The PMO’s appointments committee said it had been unaware of the court’s rebuke of Wallerstein when it decided to name him to the post. Nevertheless, after being alerted to the court’s reprimand — and the Justice Ministry’s criticism of the appointment — the PMO’s committee met again in January and unanimously approved Wallerstein’s appointment.
Answering a letter from the Movement for Integrity (Tohar Midot) against Wallerstein’s appointment, the Prime Minister’s Office legal counsel Shlomit Barnea-Farago stated that the appointment had been made without reading the criticism about him. After hearing about it, and consulting with the Justice Ministry and civil service commission, she wrote, it was decided to reconvene the appointments committee so it could hear the “relevant information in full” and reconsider whether Wallerstein is fit for the job, from the substantive and normative aspects.
“Indeed, the appointments committee had not seen the ruling in question at the meeting at which Mr. Wallerstein was appointed,” she wrote – and added that the documents for presenting his candidacy did not require Wallerstein to report the case. That said, they felt the committee should reconvene, with the information in hand, and it did on January 16, 2018.
“The committee members read the relevant documents,” Barnea-Farago wrote, and heard Wallerstein’s reaction, and unanimously decided to stick with their original decision as he was the best-suited candidate.
In its opinion, the committee wrote, Wallerstein’s main consideration when deciding to build the Ofra sewage treatment plant on Palestinian land was environmental – an acute need to halt the pollution. The plant was built with funding and backing from the Environmental Affairs Ministry, for the benefit of the public good, and not for personal gain, the committee added. Also, a long time had passed since the decision was made concerning the construction of the plant, the members wrote. It added that since then, Wallerstein had taken steps to legitimize the plant where it was built.
Ultimately, an event that happened 10 years ago was not grounds to change their decision which had been based on choosing the best man for the job, the committee concluded. Also, the committee wrote, Wallerstein had understood and accepted the criticism of him.
The committee did see the Justice Ministry opinion, which noted that the appointment was rife with problems, but, according to Barnea-Farago, that opinion did not constitute a legal barrier.
The Prime Minister’s Office commented that Wallerstein was found to be the most suitable for the job and that the committee reconvened and decided there was no grounds for altering its original decision.
Wallerstein headed the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council – which includes 42 settlements and outposts in the West Bank –for 28 years. In 1988, he was sentenced to four months’ community service after being convicted of “causing death by negligence” for shooting a Palestinian teenager who threw rocks at his car.
He served for two years as head of the Yesha council, the umbrella organization of all Jewish settlements in the West Bank.