Prime Minister Menachem Begin 20th anniversary of his death

Prime Minister Menachem Begin on justice and the rule of law: selected documents on the 20th anniversary of his death


A meeting in the prime minister’s bureau, 12 August 1979. Right to left: Minister of Finance Simha Erlich, Attorney-General Prof. Yitzhak Zamir, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Minister of Justice Shmuel Tamir
Photograph: Herman Chanania, Government Press Office

Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel, passed away on
4 Adar 5752, 9 March 1992. On the 20th anniversary of his death, the Israel State Archives is presenting for the first time three documents containing some of Begin’s statements on the law and legal issues. These documents were collected while preparing a memorial volume on Menachem Begin. They also mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Supreme Court building.

Menachem Begin was the first prime minister to have a formal legal qualification, although he never practiced as a lawyer. His legal education left a deep impression on him. It created one of the important aspects of his world view, and influenced many of his actions in foreign and domestic policy. He ensured that none of his public activities exceeded the limits of the law, and that they conformed to the decisions of the judicial system.

As prime minister, Begin determined that the law and the judicial system always stand above the government. „There are judges in Jerusalem”, he declared, after the Supreme Court accepted the state’s position on the expropriation of land for the Beit El settlement, in 1978. In addition, he took a great interest in the exact text of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

In 1977, during the first months of his term of office, Begin also served as the minister of justice. During that time he recommended to President Ephraim Katzir to pardon Yehoshua Ben-Zion, on the grounds of his serious illness. Ben-Zion was the managing director of the Israel-British Bank. Following the collapse of the bank in July 1974, he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to 12 years in prison. In view of the public criticism, in September 1977 Begin explained to Yoel Zussman, the president of the Supreme Court, why he had decided to recommend the pardon (Document No. 1 (in Hebrew), ISA/G/9565/1).

Although a fervent supporter of the Greater Israel ideology, as a follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader, Begin demanded full equality for Arab citizens within the borders of Israel. One of the expressions of that belief was his support for nominating an Arab judge to the Supreme Court. He first raised the idea when serving as minister without portfolio in Levi Eshkol’s government, shortly after the Six Day War in 1967. His adviser on Arab affairs, Dr. Moshe Sharon, proposed appointing an Arab judge from one of the District Courts to the Supreme Court, and in October 1977 Begin replied to his proposal (Document 2 (in Hebrew), ISA/ G9566/9), but the appointment was never made. It was only in 1999 that an Arab judge, Abd er-Rachman a-Zouabi, received a temporary appointment to the Supreme Court for the first time. In 2004 Salim Joubran was appointed to the Supreme Court (after a temporary term in 2003).

According to the peace treaty with Egypt signed in March 1979, Israel was required to evacuate all of Sinai, including its military and air force bases. Israel built new military bases in the Negev desert, including airfields, with American aid, and land previously held by Israeli Bedouin was expropriated for that purpose. At the beginning of April 1979 heavy equipment owned by the Public Works Department arrived at a location near a-Lagia to construct a road, despite the fact that Bedouin who claimed ownership of the land had earlier appealed to the Supreme Court (sitting as the High Court of Justice), which had issued an injunction against the expropriation and the beginning of construction. In addition, the police summoned the Bedouin leaders in the area to the nearest police station on the morning that construction started, thus preventing them from acting against it.

Prof. Yitzhak Zamir, the attorney-general, took disciplinary measures against the civil servants involved in violating the injunction. Some received a written reprimand and some were summoned to a disciplinary court. Chief among them was the commissioner of the Southern district in the Ministry of the Interior. Several ministers, led by Minister of the Interior Dr. Josef Burg, came to his defence, claiming that he did not know of the Supreme Court injunction.

The government discussed the issue on 29 April. Dr. Burg, who was abroad, was represented by Chaim Kubersky, director-general of the Ministry of the Interior, who read out a letter written by Burg. However, Begin declared: „The attorney-general in the State of Israel has a special status. I don’t believe that this status is based on a specific law. […] Due to that status, the government does not interfere in the Attorney-General’s decisions.” The government would issue a statement that it „espouses the principle of the supremacy of the law over all bodies in the executive branch, including the government itself” (Document 3 (in Hebrew), ISA/A/ 4273/3). It should be noted that the disciplinary court exonerated the commissioner of the Southern district and his colleagues in July 1980.