State attorneys-general: Israel a model for democratic safeguards

The delegation of American state attorneys-general at the Israeli Supreme Court last week (Photo: Hugh Gordon)The U.S. justice system has a great deal to learn from the Israeli experience as it confronts issues arising from the war on terror, according …

The delegation of American state attorneys-general at the Israeli Supreme Court last week (Photo: Hugh Gordon)The U.S. justice system has a great deal to learn from the Israeli experience as it confronts issues arising from the war on terror, according to Robert Spagnoletti, the young attorney-general for the District of Columbia.

As the war on terror on the domestic front intensifies, and increased steps are taken to guard homeland security, the American courts must grapple with the delicate balance between keeping the country safe and maintaining principles of democracy, human rights and individual liberties. That struggle is embodied in the continuing controversy surrounding the Patriot Act, which gives federal law enforcement authorities broader powers to act against terrorism.

“The American experience, until now, has been fighting battles overseas and dealing with legal questions in military courts,” Spagnoletti told ISRAEL21c. “But Israel has 50 years of experience in dealing with the legal issues that arise when you are conducting a military operation like fighting terror in a civilian environment, and the solutions they have found can teach us a great deal.”

Terror-related questions were the topic of much of the discussion in last week’s visit by Spagnoletti and the rest of his group of delegates from the National Association of Attorneys-General. Spagnoletti and his fellow officials met with their counterparts in the Israeli legal community as part of their mission to Israel last week. The group discussed legal questions with Justice Ministry officials including minister Tzippi Livni, and members of the Supreme Court including Chief Justice Aharon Barak and Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubenstein.

The visit was sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League and included state attorneys from Tennessee, Maryland, Arizona, Rhode Island and Idaho, as well as Washington, DC.

The League has run the missions of attorneys general from US states to Israel for the past 25 years. Some mission “graduates” have gone on to higher office, including current Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, as well as Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

“My experience has been that, by the end of each mission, those who participate come away not only with a greater appreciation of Israel’s problems, but also with admiration and support,” four-term New York State Attorney Robert Abrams, Vice-President of the League, told The Jerusalem Post.

One of the issues that came up frequently during the trip was the construction of the security fence, Abrams said in which “the attorneys- general saw how Israeli officials try to come to grips with the wrenching and difficult tensions between maintaining true democracy while taking those steps necessary to secure the nation.”

Spagnoletti said that he was particularly impressed by the deep involvement of the Israeli courts in political issues.

In Israel, “the ability of anybody to petition to the Supreme Court against an action of the government, even if you haven’t been directly harmed is unique in the world,” he said. As a result, “It seems that here, all political questions become legal questions, with nearly every controversial political move challenged in the Supreme Court. Some say that the court is too activist; others say its not activist enough which leads me to the conclusion that they are probably getting it right.”

Patrick Lynch, the Rhode Island attorney general, said it was “refreshing to hear from Israeli government officials that they acknowledged that they weren’t perfect, and that that they took the steps that they believed were right and hope for the best.”

Lynch, who spent time living in Northern Ireland after college, said that while Israelis were alert to danger and prepared for attacks, it seemed that daily life in Israel was disrupted far less by the security situation than it had been in Belfast.

Paul G. Summers, the Tennessee attorney-general agreed. “There are a lot of pre-conceived notions about security questions in the United States. They were not as obtrusive as I had imagined before I came,” he said.

The visit included a full-scale tour of the country. After they were greeted by businessman Benny Gaon, the chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League in Israel, they headed north to visit Nazareth and other historic sites, toured the Golan Heights and the border with Lebanon, and met with local leaders to discuss security issues.

That was followed by tours in Jerusalem, punctuated with meetings with government officials, including Vice Premier Shimon Peres, politicians, and representatives of the Justice Ministry, and the former commissioner of the Israel prison service. The group also met with Israeli and Palestinian attorneys, a representative of a Civil Rights organization, and with U.S. ambassador Dan Kurtzer.

Almost uniformly, the attorneys-general said in their travels, they were struck by the contrast between the images of Israel they had become used to on television and their first real-life view of the country.

“It’s important for Americans to come over here and have the opportunity to experience the beauty of the country. The media projects an inaccurate picture that it is a country that involves dodging bullets on a daily basis,” noted Lynch. “I’ve found it remarkable in the people that I’ve met, the firm belief that peace will prevail in their land despite the terrorist violence.”

“The country is beautiful,” concurred Spagnoletti. “Right now, the US public is deprived of not knowing the beauty of the land, the warmth of the people, and I think that people are being misled by the media reports. What they see is a war-torn country with an endless stream of violence.”

Summers, who served in the U.S. military reserves for 26 years, said he was particularly impressed “with the national tradition of military or some other form of service to the state.”

“This trip has been a life-altering experience for me. It’s hard for coming here not to be life altering. I have learned so much about the Israeli people, their history and culture now and I have just begun to learn.”