Let's Establish the State of Israel

After six constitution-less decades, the real question facing Israel is not 'What would a constitution contain?' but 'How is it possible to draft one?'

Roei Regev

The State of Israel has not yet been established. In 1948, the founding generation became engaged to the idea of the state, but when the results of the war became known, it wasn’t eager to go through with the marriage. The geographic change – which added an Arab minority comprising a fifth of the population, and an emerging majority of new immigrants from the Islamic countries – threatened the fledgling state’s cultural character, and deferred the idea of framing a constitution.

The transition from community to state, from “natural state” to “civil government,” was not accompanied, as could have been expected, by a social contract, constitution or agreement to band together under guidelines accepted by all. Instead of perceiving Jewish political independence as the negation of the Diaspora, as the fathers of Zionism emphasized in their vision, the state’s founders took the political patterns of the Diaspora – exclusion on an ethnic basis – and reworked them into state-scale dimensions. After six decades, the political entity called Israel looks less like a state and more like a shtetl with an air force.

The unwillingness, since 1949, to adapt the state to the changing population and the new territory is the most basic destabilizing factor in Israel. Underlying the historic crisis in which we have been locked for the past three decades is the “mother of all problems”: disagreement over the rules of the game. Whole population groups declared that they have never agreed and will never agree to a political and social order that makes the country not theirs. The Arabs don’t agree to the state’s national definition; the Mizrahim don’t agree to the division of labor and distribution of property; the ultra-Orthodox don’t agree to the redemptive metaphysical principles that form the foundation of the state’s establishment; and the settlers don’t agree to the notion of democracy for all. No group trusts any of the other groups.

It is also obvious that the political system, as it is divided today – on a basis of metaphysical guidelines of national, ethnic and religious identities – cannot permitagreement. This crisis, then, looks as if it will continue to embitter the lives of the country’s inhabitants. Among some, the deadlock will give rise to the expectation of the appearance of a strongman, while others will wish for a catastrophe.

But there is another way. Agreement can be reached about the body and identity of this country. Over the years, the discussions about the need for a constitution dealt primarily with its content. That, however, is a superfluous question, because most constitutions are quite similar. The real question about a constitution for Israel is not “What will it contain?” but “How is it possible to draft a constitution?”

The transition to a “state of all” is possible in three graduated, contingent stages:

1. Drawing of borders
Israel has to declare what its body is, who its citizens are. If it wishes to have the border run along the Jordan River, it must maintain a single state regime between the river and the sea. If it wishes to view the 1967 boundaries as the official border, it must withdraw from the territories immediately and eliminate the interim situation of rule without responsibility. Thus, when the state’s body is defined, along with its citizens, the latter will be able to start talking about agreements concerning the character of the state.

2. Transition to a full regional electoral system
Agreement will not be possible if the political map continues to be divided on the basis of metaphysical identities – national, religious or ethnic – which only heat up in the proportional elections. The only way to annul these disputes is to move to a regional system, which guarantees not only a political debate about local and real political interests, but is also a recipe for forging new local identities. With regional representation in the Knesset, most of the current disagreements would be rendered superfluous.

3. Framing a constitution
The first parliament to be elected under a regional system will be empowered to frame a constitution. The agreements on the constitution’s principles will be enabled on the basis of the understanding that “the state belongs to everyone,” and that no law, institution or policy will be viable if it seeks to create privileges without universal agreement. If the Declaration of Independence was promulgated from the viewpoint of the Jewish people, the constitution will be framed from the viewpoint of the Israelis, the inhabitants of this country.

At that point we will finally be able to say that the State of Israel has been established.

Dr. Avner Ben-Zaken is a historian of science. He teaches at Ono Academic College.