A bumpy road to peace

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 1998, 12:00am

Almost 20 years ago, when Israel's Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein first set foot in Hong Kong, it was as chief of staff to the foreign minister, Moshe Dayan.

It was a time of optimism, when Israel had just signed a peace treaty with Egypt, its first with an Arab country and one in which Mr Rubinstein had played a key role.

Dayan was travelling around Asia trying to build on the international goodwill - at least in the non-Muslim world - that the treaty had generated. Israel was on a diplomatic sales mission, trying to strengthen its links with its few friends in Asia and forge new ones with countries that had traditionally been hostile.

But it was not until Mr Rubinstein's next visit to Asia in 1992, that some of what Dayan started finally came to fruition. By then he was travelling with the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to establish full diplomatic relations with China.

Perhaps Mr Rubinstein's crowning glory as a diplomat, however, was the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, after leading the Israeli negotiating team for almost four years.

Both Dayan and Rabin are now dead, the latter assassinated by a Jewish religious fanatic opposed to the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, and Israel's new right-wing Government is less eager to force the pace of the peace process.

As a diplomat, civil servant and judge, Mr Rubinstein gives no indication of where he stands personally on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's approach.

'The position of the Attorney- General is apolitical,' he says. 'You're supposed to gain the confidence of everybody by independent decisions and not being affected by political considerations. I've never adhered to a political party, and I've been a civil servant all my life.' Perhaps he is fortunate that, for the moment, he has been able to shake off the burden of so much personal responsibility for the peace process and return to legal matters instead.

In Israel's divided society, the rifts between Jews and Israeli Arabs, between religious and secular factions, and between Jews of different ethnic and religious backgrounds are often as fraught as the relations between hawks and doves. He has plenty of scope as Attorney- General to apply his philosophy of always trying to bring both sides together and look for what he calls 'the common sense solution'.

In Hong Kong on a private visit, Mr Rubinstein met Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-see. He came away impressed at the challenges facing Hong Kong in building a post-colonial legal system.

'It was really quite illuminating,' he says. 'To some extent we had a similar situation in 1948 when the British mandate [in Palestine] ended and the appeal to the Privy Council was severed. We [newly independent Israel] had to build our own fully fledged final appeal system.' The parallels with Israel's relations with the Palestinians are also compelling. 'You can learn a lot from experiences in times of dynamics,' he explains. 'We have not yet been able to work with the Palestinians in the legal sphere as our agreements stipulate. It's very slow and the legal system there is still in its initial steps.' The comparison can only be taken so far. True, China is also still building a legal system, while Hong Kong, like Israel, starts from an established common law tradition. But as Mr Rubinstein himself puts it, the complexity of legal relations and with the Palestinians is 'on a completely different scale'.

'I want to be respectful to the other side,' he says, asked if Palestinian justice is more than an improvised system which depends on whether the leaders want a particular person in prison, 'but it still seems to be rudimentary.' He does not want to offer unwanted advice. Some Palestinians may derive inspiration from Israeli law, but most, he believes, would rather look to Arab countries for an example.

That brings us back to the peace process, as the difficulties of dialogue with the Palestinians clearly go further than a lack of communication over the law. As a man who has spent so much time pushing for peace, is he disappointed with the current events? He is diplomatic. 'I'm not very heavily involved with the current peace process. I sit in the government meetings by tradition as the Attorney-General, and I review the agreement and add my comments,' he says, referring to the recently negotiated, but already stalled, Wye Accord between Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But he does not vote.

'I don't think there is a contradiction between being faithful to the history of the Jewish bond to all parts of the country and its historic and spiritual aspects and between supporting the peace process, because our tradition and our ethics is built on peace and the search for peace.

'For me the involvement in the peace negotiations over the years has been a very fulfilling experience. It's part of our heritage and so is the bond to the country. It's a very difficult situation, but you try to do your best.' Mr Rubinstein will not be drawn on whether one side or the other may be less committed to peace. Yet even here, he speaks as a man who believes common sense compromise is possible. 'One shouldn't despair. Not at all,' he says.