The Pendulum of Justice

The coalition agreement signed two days ago between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu not only gave Avigdor Lieberman's faction the say over the justice ministry, it also granted it the chairmanship of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

The man touted for the latter position is Knesset member David Rotem, aged 60, a resident of the West Bank town of Efrat and a father of five.

Rotem, who has a legal background, entered the Knesset at the beginning of 2007 following the death of MK Yuri Stern. In the two years since, he has proven to be one of the most active and conspicuous members on the law committee. Prior to that he served as legal adviser to the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria and the Amana settlement movement. In that capacity, he represented the settlers who went to court over the evacuation of outposts.

Rotem has also litigated on behalf of a number of settlement leaders charged with the deaths of Palestinians in the territories. Members of the "Jewish Underground" and Rabbi Moshe Levinger of Kiryat Arba were all clients of his, as was Pinhas Wallerstein, the head of the Mateh Binyamin regional council. Both Levinger and Wallerstein were charged with manslaughter. Rotem succeeded in bringing an expert opinion from a pathologist that convinced the court not to convict Wallerstein of the death of an Arab demonstrator, and enabled him to work out a plea bargain under which Wallerstein was charged merely with causing death by negligence.

Rotem once complained about his popularity in an interview with the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon. "There are people who believe that Dudu Rotem is the private legal adviser of every settler," he said, "that it is possible to call him at home whenever they want and about any subject they want." And he jokingly told the interviewer that he had no clients from inside the Green Line.

In May 2007, when the new justice minister at that time, Daniel Friedmann, came to meet the committee, Rotem told him: "A legal mafia has gained control of our democracy and we have to be careful."

The committee chairman, MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) asked him to retract his words. "You are right sir," Rotem responded. "That was not fitting. I'll call them a legal gang."

Rotem did his legal internship under Justice Minister-designate Prof. Yaakov Neeman, at Bar Ilan University. When Neeman left the university, Rotem took over some of the courses he had taught. The two together will pose an even more formidable opposition to the existing legal system than Friedmann exerted as justice minister. Rotem has declared his intention, if elected to the chairmanship, of pushing forward and expediting legal processes in the committee by calling in fewer experts to voice their opinions before the committee members. He also intends to take steps to introduce legislation that will make the work of the courts more efficient and cut down the long wait currently faced before a verdict is handed down.

Where Friedmann worked to curb the authority of the Supreme Court, Rotem has submitted a proposal for the establishment of a constitutional court. He intends, in other words, to transfer the powers of the High Court of Justice out of the hands of the Supreme Court and into the new framework. "The Supreme Court has 13 justices whose job is to listen to dozens, if not hundreds, of civil and criminal cases. There are cases where a person who has appealed a criminal verdict must wait a year and a half or two years in detention until a verdict is handed down, and meanwhile his whole life is being destroyed," he says.

Rotem believes that "the Supreme Court must deal with passing judgment. That is its natural task. When we reach a situation where the Supreme Court is busy running the country and large numbers of judges sit on the benches to decide which bomb to drop on the home of [assassinated Hamas militant Salah] Shehadeh then, with all due respect, I think that is not the court's duty. If it had finished [reviewing] all its cases, then okay."

Can an appeals court be set up that would free the Supreme Court justices so they could deal with petitions to the High Court?

"I say that, since they are busy dealing with politically controversial issues, that is the not the objective for which the court exists. We will set up a court that is not merely staffed by professional judges. It will also have lawyers, and rabbis, and professors, and sociologists and economists. Then the substantive rulings will reflect the peoples' opinion. The court today is composed of certain people and I want to expand the circle of those who influence a matter of dissent among the general public. We know, after all, that there were people who were disqualified from being judges because they had an agenda. [The reference is to Prof. Ruth Gavison] That is something I cannot live with in a democratic country."

Do you think there is a realistic chance that a constitutional court will be established in the present Knesset?

"The most important thing is that a person has dreams and he believes that everything is realistic. In my eyes, a constitutional court is something realistic. It's all a matter of situations. All legislation is built on situations."

Why did Freidmann not manage to pass any reform that would limit the authorities of the court system?

"Because there are people in the state of Israel, including members of the Knesset, who see red when there is any slight to the legal system. Instead of examining the proposal for what it is worth, and trying to judge whether it might help the system or people, they immediately hold up a red card."

Rotem says he has heard that "there is a custom for chairmen of the law committee to meet with the president and justices of the Supreme Court, and all kinds of things like that." For his part, he makes it clear, "there will be no private meetings. There will be meetings in the committee room. They will express their opinions like everyone else. There will not be give and take. We have to maintain very clearly the separation of powers, and that means that there is no mingling between lawyers, judges and Knesset members."

Rotem is also the person responsible for submitting the draft law stipulating that Israeli citizenship will require a declaration of loyalty as well as military or national service, and that anyone who does not declare allegiance will lose his citizenship. This proposal became Yisrael Beiteinu's motto in the recent elections: "No citizenship without allegiance."

Rotem's father, Shachna, was a leader of the now defunct Poalei Agudat Yisrael party and was a close associate of the Hazon Ish, one of the most important ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the early days of the state. But nevertheless, Rotem has a surprise up his sleeve. The law, he says, will apply also to the ultra-Orthodox population. "From my point of view," he says, "there is no difference between Moshe Hirsch of Neturei Karta who met with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, or [Islamic Movement head] Sheikh Ra'ad Salah. Religion makes no difference, and nor does the place of birth or the profession. What is decisive is allegiance to the state of Israel as a Jewish state. It is not conceivable that some citizens should serve the country and be killed in wars and terrorist acts, while other citizens sit at home and enjoy life. I'm not trying to enforce military service. There are hospitals and homes for elderly or handicapped people in every society. There is no reason why someone should be exempt from helping people like that."

Are you are in effect proposing that the arrangement which defers military service for the ultra-Orthodox be canceled?

"That's right."

Is that what you grew up with?

"I grew up in an ultra-Orthodox and Zionist home. We celebrated Independence Day. We all did military service or national service."