A Common Denominator and a Hope

The status quo of religion and state was the brainchild of a society that knew how to make concessions and how to reach agreements. Today we have lost the capability to compromise.

The public discourse on the constitution is being conducted as if it were a mere political and legal document or a declaration of rights. This is a sorely-missed opportunity, because the constitution is no less a social contract than it is a legal document. The constitution is a real chance to return Israeli society to something it lost long ago - agreement on the rules of the game and on the fact that we are all part of the same game.

Almost all the agreements that comprised the social contract of Israeli society collapsed in the last generation, one after another. The status quo between religious and secular societies disintegrated and was replaced by aggressively-enforced decisions. The religious are using their position as a swing vote in the Knesset and employing violent demonstrations to achieve their goal. The secular are fighting by petitioning the High Court of Justice and by violating religious legislation en masse. The mutual responsibility implicit in the welfare state was also part of the social contract of Israel. It was exchanged for privatization, for an employment world directed by contractors, and is characterized by growing gaps between the rich and the poor. Even the understanding that everyone - except for the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox - would be conscripted to the army, is beginning to erode. Thus it may be possible that the real social contract of Israeli society is the agreement that no one here wants to be a sucker.

The status quo between religion and state was the brainchild of a society that knew how to make concessions and how to reach agreements. We have since lost the capability to compromise. We do not agree - not only about the results of the game but also about the field where it is played and about its rules. When the rules of the game are not agreed upon, society disintegrates and democracy is jeopardized. That is why an agreed-upon constitution is so important. The possibility that Israeli society will prove it is capable of putting together a new contract is no less important than the document itself. There is a great fear that the Arabs will not participate in the constitutional process. But the truth is that no constitution that defines Israel as a Jewish state will be acceptable to Arab representatives; and Israel is a Jewish state. An attempt must be made to convince the representatives of the Arab parties and organizations to join in the move, or at least to accompany from outside.

The constitution must define the Arabs as a national minority even if they do not participate in the process, and must give this minority concrete collective rights. But the constitutional process must proceed even if the Arabs decide to boycott it.

In a country where the various political and social streams have for many generations been attacking one another, it is difficult to imagine a mood of agreement and unity. So here is a proposal: Let's return to the moment when Shimon Peres was elected president, recall the feeling of elation and imagine that same situation of mutual agreement and trust, respect toward elected representatives and readiness to live together, continuing. We must put aside a large measure of cynicism to this end, but it is worth compromising. Because if our representatives were to understand the tremendous advantage involved in this and were they to devote their time and political energy to this purpose, it would be possible to achieve a constitution.

Meretz Party Chair Zahava Gal-On, believes that a constitution that enshrines a situation in which there is no civil marriage is worse than the present situation. But the truth is that the constitution will not enshrine a situation of this kind. It will merely stipulate that the High Court of Justice cannot use it to invalidate existing laws on the subjects of religion and state. That is a painful price to pay but it is a price that the secular population can and must pay - just as the religious side is required to make peace with the fact that the High Court will interpret the constitution and reconcile itself to the risk involved in turning the principle of equality into a constitutional principle.

There are matters that are bigger than politics and require people to forgo things and be ready to make significant concessions. Peace is such an event. Peace among us could be a historical event and bear no lesser importance than peace with our enemies. If we are capable of achieving a new agreement on the rules of the game, on redefining the field, on deciding what is being played and where, and on renewing trust in the Knesset and the government, this will be a different country, a country that has a common denominator - a country with hope. We are constantly being told that this Knesset is an improvement on previous ones. But is it up to the constitutional challenge?