Under Right-wing Pressure, Senior Israeli Justice Official Stripped of West Bank Authority

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber was lightning rod for settlers and the right wing.

Dina Zilber, left, and Ayelet Shaked at the Knesset, 2014.
Olivier Fitoussi

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has dramatically curtailed his deputy Dina Zilber’s authority to determine law enforcement policy in the West Bank, following criticism of Zilber from settlers and other right-wingers.

During recent Justice Ministry meetings on the alternative land being offered to settlers in the illegal outpost Amona, which is to be evacuated, Zilber objected to the deal. But this was only her most recent run-in with the right.

In 2015, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked reprimanded Zilber after the latter opposed a bill put forward by Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi coleague, MK Bezalel Smotrich, to permanently establish the legal status of the World Zionist Union’s Settlement Department. She opposed the bill after saying in February 2015 that the government should stop funding the Settlement Department.

Mendelblit cut her authority on legal issues in the territories, which she will now share with three other deputy attorneys general.

Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir charged: “The Netanyahu government is on a mission to eliminate all gatekeepers and anyone who is supposed to rein in their power and to protect democracy. Reducing the powers of Dina Zilber, who bravely worked against dirty corruption and misuse of public funds, is in practice blackmailing with threats any public servant who works for the public and doesn’t play to the political interests of Bibi and Bennett [Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi head]. This dangerous government totally forgot its role as the state, and decided it may dismantle democracy to protect its rule.”

Mendelblit wrote: “I decided recently in coordination with attorney Dina Zilber that the legal issues related to Judea and Samaria will no longer be handled by the counseling department [headed by Zilber]. I also decided that the legal issues involving Judea and Samaria will no longer be handled as one field but rather by various departments according to the relevant legal field of interest, and not as a matter of its own.”

He added: “I would ask at this opportunity to express my enormous gratitude and admiration for the professional and dedicated work of attorneys Dina Zilber, Anat Assif and Tehila Roth, and their predecessors, who carried for years the heavy burden of handling issues regarding Judea and Samaria, making sure to do so with professional excellence and integrity.”

In 2014, Zilber also expressed opposition to transferring management of the Davison Center Archaeological Park in Jerusalem, adjacent to the Western Wall, to the right-wing Elad organizational. She asked Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who was responsible for the move, to hold off “until the legal issues are resolved.” Zilber wrote that the move could endanger the agreement to expand the Western Wall prayer section and negotiations between the government and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. The Supreme Court is still handling the case.

In that same year, Zilber wrote an opinion seeking to prevent certain groups of army-aged youths volunteering in communities, some of them on a religious track to strengthen Jewish identity, from receiving funding from multiple state sources. Such groups, volunteering before the army or in lieu of army service, receive funding from four government ministries, two of them controlled by Habayit Hayehudi: education, agriculture, housing and construction and development of the Negev.

Zilber’s opinion revealed that two or more ministries supported 41 of 178 such groups. The Agriculture Ministry under Ariel was the leader practitioner in this matter, double funding 63 percent of the groups. The second biggest culprit was the Education Ministry’s Torah Institutions Division, which was responsible for 28 percent of the double funding. She added that such practices create the potential for irregularities, excessive funding and ineffective supervision.

Regarding the WZO’s Settlement Division, Zilber had written, “The scope of this budget attests to the power and force, the extent of authority and the enormous space for advancing and setting policy entrusted in the department’s hands ... The existence of an extra-governmental operational arm, in which clear government authorities are exercised, and the whole purpose is to carry out government decisions, and despite not being fully answerable to the duties of administrative law, is improper.”

She stated, “This situation is liable to create a ‘back door’ for the government to carry out its actions outside the framework of the law and to provide an easy platform for the development of structural pathologies.”