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Politics as usual

Yair Lapid

Yediot Achronot Op-Ed
December 27, 2005

Israel Democracy Institute says 81 percent of the public wants a constitution; not me


Americans have a strange custom. If their president is sick or wounded, they gather in groups of various sizes, light candles and pray. Sometimes they sing a song or place flowers. Only in Israel do we shift in to terror attack mode, including freaked out secret service guys.


This may have been the most obvious thing about those hours after the prime minister was whisked to hospital and his condition was unclear: Everything is political. The children of the candles belong to the left, the prayers belong to the right; we save songs for the city squares and flowers for the dead.


At 8:00 Sharon is hospitalized; by 11 all the TV newscasters are speculating how it's is going to affect the Likud primaries. We are experts at mourning but we have no idea how to express concern. We lack the patience for it.


Not me


Posters say 81 percent of the public supports a constitution by consensus.


Not me. It has taken me some time to figure out where I stand, because first I wanted to read the thing. Turns out it's really long, detailed, often impressively so. While reading it, I occasionally wondered to myself how the Israel Democracy Institute managed to convince 81 percent of the public to read hundreds of sections.


If we were talking about a less prestigious institute I would suspect them of marketing a populist slogan they know full well has no meaning.


The main reason I do not support a constitution by consensus is that it's so easy to agree with. Laws are not supposed to be bent to fit a given situation but to change one.


The first, and perhaps the most influential, constitution ever written is the American constitution. The 13th amendment forbidding slavery passed in 1865, but it didn't exactly have a consensus. Far from it: it passed in the face of much anger and pain, but with courage rooted in a very profound commitment.


They knew that in the short term, the ban on slavery would cause a rift in society, but understood their real responsibility was not to party calm but to justice.


Overly erudite


The 19th amendment granting women the right to vote was also passed against a backdrop of great fury and anger. But is there anyone alive today who believes this amendment should not have become law?


Israel's proposed constitution by consensus is an erudite text, maybe overly so. It lacks the emotional depth of the US constitution, not to mention the moral courage of the “Founding Fathers” to deal with controversial issues. It could be that the different way in which the two constitutions were written influenced their content.


One very inspired man, John Adams, wrote the US constitution. The Israeli proposal by consensus, with all due respect to Meir Shamgar, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was written by a committee.


Section 164 of the Israeli document, for example, places all laws regarding matrimony under the aegis of the rabbinical courts. The authors apparently chose to ignore the fact that these courts routinely discriminate against women. Women may be 51 percent of the public, but they know there is no party in the Knesset willing to fight for their rights.


The tiny section ‘B' (Yes, I know YOU read it, but this is directed at the 19 percent who have not had the time.) guarantees the provision of a framework and funding for religious services. Get your wallets ready.


Avoiding the issues


But the largest thing missing is the way the document elegantly avoids the two most loaded issues facing Israeli society. First it does not specify who is to be governed by the constitution by consensus nor does it establish that country's borders.


Does it apply to the territories? Does it not apply to the territories? What about the 1.5 million Palestinians? Are they included? Excluded?


The second issue left out even more crucial is the political system in Israel. Most Israelis believe that the current system is not working. The writing of a constitution is the perfect time – maybe the only time – to deal with the subject. But even on this, the need for consensus won out and the constitution excused itself by stating that it does not contradict or supersede already existing laws.


So for what? Israel has already got– by the most conservative estimates – three or four times more laws than any other democracy. If most of the constitution by consensus judiciously avoids dealing with what is most painful, then what do we need it for?


No one to kick around


I never liked Yossi Sarid. I once wrote something really awful about him and not long afterwards we met by chance – in synagogues of all places. He had something pretty terrible to say to me in return and that is how we left it. Neither of us expressed an ounce of remorse or regret. There were a number of outside attempts to reconcile our rift, in particular for purposes of television programming but we were not interested. I don't need him and he surely does not need me and we should both jump in a lake.


But now that he has retired from politics, there's no one to drive me crazy anymore. I look around the Knesset members in search of someone who will annoy me like Sarid did, but there is no one as articulate and devious, with brilliantly crafted but totally aggravating opinions.


I'm looking for someone whose political views are aggravating and anachronistic, but at least they are anchored in some kind of genuine worldview. Being the intellectual that he is, he loves the sound of his own words; he's a creative producer of crazy ideas and a real pain in the butt who knows that he is forcing you to think about the nonsense he is uttering.


I still don't like Sarid but he was fun to kick around. The others are just exasperatingly boring.