Former Israeli Attorney General Recounts Peace Efforts

by Dana Steinberg, Wilson Center staff

Feb 12, 2004

A coffee mug sits on the desk of Elyakim Rubinstein that reads, "We all want peace." Rubinstein, who served as Israel's attorney general for the past seven years, is spending two months in residence at the Wilson Center conducting research for two future publications. He has worked tirelessly for a quarter-century on trying to achieve peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. His current writings will reflect lessons learned from those negotiations as well as a review of Israeli-American constitutional law issues.

"I'm one of the few who was involved in the peace negotiations that dealt with all of our neighbors," Rubinstein said during a recent interview. While assistant director-general of Israel's Foreign Affairs Ministry, Rubinstein participated in the Camp David negotiations in 1978 that led to a still-unbroken peace treaty with Egypt. Subsequently, he participated in peace talks with Lebanon, the Palestinians, and Syria—all of which did not succeed or did not fully succeed—as well as the successful peace talks with Jordan in 1994 that produced Israel's second peace treaty with an Arab neighbor. He chaired the Israeli delegation to the negotiations with Jordan, which is a source of great personal satisfaction.

In July 2000, Rubinstein took part in another round of Camp David negotiations, this time with the Palestinian leadership. He was the only negotiator there who also had participated in the 1978 Camp David talks. But unlike Camp David 1978, Camp David 2000 did not yield a peace treaty.

"I saw with my own eyes how [then-Prime Minister Ehud] Barak went out of his way to come up with solutions," he said. "Arafat just ignored them and didn't respond." Today, Rubinstein added, Israelis and Palestinians still disagree on several key points, including solutions for Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. "But solutions exist," he insisted. "We need a partner, one who has the ability to fulfill agreements and fight terrorism."

Working toward a lasting peace, advised Rubinstein, will require the Palestinian leadership to implement, among other things, two long-term strategies: rule of law and education for peace.

"The Palestinians have no law and order system, no serious prosecution, no functioning system of legal codes," he said. "Barring that, there's no foundation for a civil society." Rubinstein said any formal agreements between Israel and the Palestinians could not be meaningful until the Palestinian leadership establishes and enforces a justice system. Equally important, he added, will be conditioning Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world toward a real and lasting peace through education initiatives, so the Palestinian and Arab public will feel the importance of peace.

As attorney general, Rubinstein had the combined responsibilities of being both chief prosecutor and counsel to the Israeli government. He also is a former judge. In Israel, the attorney general heads criminal prosecution countrywide. In addition, he and his associates represent the government in all litigation—civil, constitutional, administrative, fiscal, and international. He also represents the public interest in the courts of law.

Rubinstein's duties were many and varied: working on the peace process, minority rights, equality, rights of those with disabilities, women's rights, budgets, distributional justice, state-religion issues. His responsibilities also included, in particular, an ongoing challenge: balancing national security with respect for human rights.

Rubinstein's current research delves into that problem as he takes lessons amassed from his own experience in helping Israel combat terrorism, and compares them with recent U.S. efforts to balance security and human rights in its war on terrorism.

Israelis cope with terrorist threats and incidents on a daily basis. "It's difficult and challenging to be a democracy working toward peace, yet haunted by terror," Rubinstein said. One of the toughest legal issues, said Rubinstein, is dealing with the Palestinian civilian population in the most honest and fair way. "Palestinian civilians often are used by terrorist organizations to launch attacks," he said, "but we have to balance how to properly treat innocent Palestinians while fighting terror."

To that end, Rubinstein sees Israel's role as two-fold: "We tell the army and security service to go by the law—international and domestic law—while defending the military from libel in the media," he said, citing as an example the media's labeling of the Israeli incursion into Jenin as a "massacre," which he said never occurred. Rubinstein affirmed that the Israeli army is educated to abide by the rule of law and defend the country with morality. "There are some aberrations, here and there" he acknowledged, "but they should be, and are, prosecuted."

Last year, at the age of 55, Rubinstein spent a week as a reserve soldier at an army checkpoint to identify with, and observe, the army's work and its treatment of the population, as well as gauge its respect for human rights. These young soldiers, he recounted, approached their work humanely. On balancing security and human rights, he said, "The challenge is always there. But I have no doubt about the approach and the determination to go against those who violate the regulations."

A security measure that has stirred controversy on both sides of the Mideast conflict is the building of a fence along the Green Line, which separates much of the West Bank from the rest of Israel, to prevent terrorists from entering and carrying out attacks in Israel. Rubinstein defended the security fence.

"We feel it is a necessary defensive measure against terrorism," he said. "It could be temporary, until the terror stops, and we try to draw it so it does not affect the Palestinian quality of life." He maintained that anyone could petition the Israeli Supreme Court with human rights and security concerns—-a unique concept-—and the court responds daily to the constant flow of inquiries by individuals and human rights organizations.

Just about every Israeli family, he claims, has been struck by tragedy from the ongoing violence in Israel, having lost relatives or friends. Rubinstein told a story about his friend, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, whose mother is an Auschwitz survivor who lost both of her parents at Auschwitz. Last year, the ambassador's niece-—on her last day of college-—was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Her grandmother had seen, in her lifetime, both her parents and granddaughter assassinated for the same reason-—being Jewish. And, he said, there are countless other similar tragedies.

Rubinstein asserts that, throughout Europe, growing levels of anti-Semitism are complicating prospects for Mideast peace. When Rubinstein served as a cabinet secretary in Jerusalem 16 years ago, he identified what he saw as a tendency toward "a new anti-Semitism," and he had received support from the Israeli government to study this new phenomenon. At the time, some politicians and members of the media dismissed the idea and said he was wasting his time. But today, said Rubinstein, the problem is growing and reflected in biased media coverage. Combating such hatred, he said, requires an all-out effort in the political and legal arenas, as well as educating all people—-young and old-—about the dangers of hate.

In addition to his research on the peace process and legal issues, Rubinstein simultaneously has begun work on a memoir. Following his stay at the Wilson Center, he plans to return to Israel. There, he will continue his research and writing with the hope that his experiences and insights in working toward peace in the Middle East will impact current and future peace efforts. He remains optimistic that a true peace will come in the near future.

"All of us are there to stay," he said, "Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arab neighbors."