Defending the home front

The next IDF chief, Yoav Galant, might be worthy of being Isrel’s no. 1 soldier, but his illegal acquisition of public land for private use and development of his property questions his moral, legal integrity.

By Daniel Orenstein on Haaretz.com

The chief of staff is Israel’s No. 1 soldier. The country’s security rests on his shoulders and its army is expected to follow him into battle. He should thus be a person with an impressive military record, charisma, intellect and determination.

But should the chief of staff also display outstanding integrity and be a law-abiding individual who respects his fellow citizens? The state says yes, which is why Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant’s appointment to the chief of staff post was reviewed by the the Turkel committee, tasked with assessing the integrity and thus suitability of candidates for senior government positions.

Last month, the panel approved Galant. Yet, despite its lightning-fast approval, lingering doubts remain, as seen in comments by the deputy attorney general and by the Turkel committee itself. At issue is Galant’s illegal acquisition of public land for private use and development of that land as an extension of his own property.

The Israel Green Movement, along with six of its national leaders, is appealing to the Supreme Court to halt the appointment. They charge that the committee was negligent in approving Galant before doing its homework. The petitioners describe how Galant “took control of land against the law and consistently, and with thuggish behavior, ruthlessly and crudely trampled law and order − behavior that started in 2006 and continues until this day.”

The story, meticulously covered by Maariv journalist Kalman Libskind, begins in the late 1990s when Galant purchased a five-dunam lot on Moshav Amikam, near Zichron Yaakov, and built a new home. The Galants were reportedly unhappy that their driveway would cut through their own land, so they cleared a new road on public land between the neighbors’ homes. The neighbors complained and the head of the local planning authority ordered a cessation of the road building. Then Galant built a new road, again on public land, this time even longer. When the neighbors challenged this road, Galant produced a letter from the army stating that it was required for “emergency evacuations.”

Meanwhile, Galant went on to plant trees along the driveway, obstructing the neighbors’ views. When a neighbor tried to trim them, Galant cynically had her arrested for damaging trees. Next he cleared a parking lot, put up fencing and lighting, and extended his garden, all on publicly owned land designated as open space.

The Galants were given an additional 35 dunams of land by the Israel Lands Administration for agricultural use without going through conventional channels and, according to the Green Movement appeal, without paying. Then Galant took 28 dunams more for agriculture with no official approval. This proved too much for even the ILA, which sent a letter to Galant in 2006 demanding he uproot the trees and evacuate the additional 28 dunams. It took him two years to apologize for his “mistaken” cultivation of the additional land, and an additional year to remove the trees.

A paper trail of half a dozen court and local planning committee statements compiled by the Green Movement suggests that Galant systematically disregarded planning laws and procedures. But there are other important implications that go far beyond one individual exercising his political clout for personal gain.

When our military and civilian leaders show disregard for the law, the effect is a trickle-down justification of lawlessness and of cynicism that magnifies the impact of the leader’s activities. As one of his neighbors tellingly revealed to Haaretz, “Many people in Amikam sit on public land. The point is that we have a gentlemen’s agreement that as long as it doesn’t bother the neighbors, it’s not a problem.” A second neighbor excused Galant’s actions with a blithe reference to Ariel Sharon, whose Sycamore Ranch is the largest private farm in the country, also acquiring land through questionable means.

Secondly, the lack of response to Galant’s flaunting of the law also erodes faith in the public institutions that are responsible for enforcing it. When the Haifa district building supervisor requested that the authorities stop Galant from using the illegally constructed infrastructure, the man added that if this did not happen, his agency would continue losing the public’s faith. But Galant persevered and created new facts on the ground and the authority of the public planning and building committees was indeed diminished.

By ignoring Galant’s behavior, the effectiveness of the Turkel committee, guardian of government integrity, is also brought into doubt. Indeed by its own admission, it reached its conclusions before reviewing any of the claims regarding Galant’s land grab, and despite the results of the deputy attorney general’s report. In short, Galant may have been guilty of actions that call his integrity into question, but the committee assigned to investigate didn’t take the time to investigate.

We need not accept this behavior from our military leaders or politicians, and we should demand of our public institutions − land-use agencies, courts and government committees − to fulfill their role to the public, regardless of the standing of the individual under question. As for Maj. Gen. Galant, if the Green Movement petitioners are correct, he should immediately evacuate all but his five dunams and return the rest to the public.

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