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This morning in Haifa, the sixth annual conferences of the Israel Democracy Institute - with pomp, circumstance and lots of hope - opens discussion on the "character and identity of the state and ramifications for a constitution," starting with a preamble to that constitution. The institute is trying to create wide-scale public agreement on many issues, which all come down to the need for a constitution to "put some order" into Israeli society.

Presumably when the conference is over, the question will remain whether Israel needs a constitution, and if one can be formulated to the satisfaction of all the various sectors of society. Nonetheless, the amount of time and effort that public figures and academics are devoting to the issue has given birth to an important debate that might sharpen perceptions of Israeli society's changing reality.

Is Israel going to be a Jewish-democratic state, ask the conference organizers, or a state for the Jewish people, or a state of all its citizens, or a multi-cultural state? Seemingly, all the options are possible, but in effect, there's no agreement among the speakers, lecturers and audience how to even interpret those terms. Perhaps someone should put some order into reading comprehension.

Someone tried - Haifa University sociologist Prof. Sami Samuha, who researched Israeli-Arab attitudes toward the state. His findings, which he'll report on today, are interesting, and their social-political analysis even more so. Samuha presented different groups of Israeli Jews and Arabs with various government options to choose from (including, for example, two separate halachic states, one for Jews, the other for Arab Muslims), with one choice consistent for all the groups: "Israel remains a Jewish, Zionist state, in which the Arabs enjoy democratic rights, get a proportionate share of the budget and manage their own religious, educational and cultural institutions."

In 2001, some 50 percent of the Arabs surveyed responded positively to that offer. But in 1995, a month before the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, 66 percent were in favor. In 1995, 71.5 percent of the Jews favored the proposal, while this year, 80 percent. Here's an interesting point: The Rabin era, aside from the political window of opportunity, also was a period of unprecedented investment and affirmative action for Arabs in Israel - and it inspired pragmatic attitudes toward the state.

"Obviously it was never the first priority of the Arabs, but `the Rabin effect' created for them, for the first time, a distinction between the right-wing's Zionism and that of the left," explains Samuha. "They suddenly discovered the Jewish state could be tolerable."

Most of the Jews, for their part, are not ready to give up the Jewish hegemony, but understand - especially as a result of the intifada - that it is problematic, since the Arabs won't continue accepting systematic, institutional discrimination. So, what's to be done? Conferences are held, dialogues are conducted and magic solutions are sought.

Samuha surveyed all the familiar systems of government in the West and found that none is applicable to Israel: not the Swiss and Belgian models, democracies that offer equal standing to each group, because the Jews won't agree; not the American and French models, which are liberal democracies that put the citizen at the center, eliminating separate cultural and ethnic identities (including separation of state from nationality and religion) and prohibiting separate education; nor the vague "multi-cultural state," which is essentially close to a bi-national one.

Most liberal democracies are heading toward multi-culturalism, says Samuha, but Israel is essentially an anti-liberal model, that could be defined as an "ethnic democracy," along the lines of Slovakia and Estonia, nation states that function as new democracies that are ruled by the majority but grant democratic rights to all.

Almost all the Arabs are interested in a bi-national state - not the one Mapam dreamt about in the 1950s (including a Jewish hegemony), but rather a division along all areas into two cultural-ethnic entities.

But it's not that, nor the dreams of transfer by a small minority of the Jews, nor the uncompromising attitudes of the official Arab leadership that are important for understanding the reality. That's what the real conclusion of Samuha's study shows, and there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

The conclusion is that where the politicians are stupid and the academics are fanciful, the citizenry is pragmatic, wise and looking for compromise. Half the Arab public and 80 percent of the Jews hope to make the Jewish-Zionist state more egalitarian, just and liberal. For a brief moment, in Rabin's day, it appeared possible.