Changes in the Constitution of the United States require the support of at least a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Congress. Such is the accepted norm for major changes to be passed in most democratic countries. Fundamental changes require wide-ranging support, considerably more than a simple majority. That makes sense even to those not trained in the legal profession.
Israel is an exception. Maybe even a lone exception. Here a simple majority of the Knesset is sufficient to pass major changes affecting the lives of all of the country’s citizens. It is difficult to find an explanation for this legal lacuna in Israel, which seems to have more lawyers per capita than any country on the globe. Was something forgotten? Or is it just a matter of convenience for narrow-based coalition governments? Isn’t it time for a correction?
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The nation-state law is not the first case where a “constitutional” change was passed by a simple majority. Well remembered is the ill-begotten law of 1992 for the direct election of the prime minister, which brought a radical change to the way Israel elects its leader.
It was revoked nine years later with general agreement that it had been an abject failure that had done damage to the Israeli political system. But unfortunately, it was not followed by the logical conclusion that simple majorities are not sufficient for the legislation of major changes.
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These thoughts come to mind as we witness the substantial opposition from many of Israel’s citizens to the Jewish nation-state law passed by the Knesset by a simple majority. No doubt many citizens feel, like the prime minister, that this law is exactly what Israel needs. Others support it but have reservations about some of its aspects, or feel that important matters have been left out of it. Many insist that the law is unnecessary and harmful. And much of the Druze community feels that the legislation has failed to emphasize their status in the Jewish state, and needs to be amended.
Obviously, not all of these positions can be or should be mobilized in support of the law. But was it not possible to gain the support of some of those supporting those views, so as to pass it with a more substantial majority?
It may be too late to make a correction. The best that can be hoped for now is that the Knesset’s recess will be utilized to formulate an amendment that will alleviate the concerns of Israel’s Druze citizens. Hopefully that will happen during the coming weeks. How easily the feelings of protest and bitterness that have swept the Druze community and angered many of Israel’s Jewish citizens could have been avoided. There is a lesson to be learned here.
But once this storm has blown over it will be time to finally pass a law that will require more than just a simple majority in order for fundamental changes to be legislated for the State of Israel – so that Israel in this regard will be in line with other democracies.
Here is a chance for the Knesset to take the initiative and devote a number of sessions of its legislative committee to the subject. For the minister of justice to give her opinion. For the legal profession to address the issue, and for the Israel Democracy Institute to devote time to the question of how constitutional changes should be legislated in Israel.
The protests that have swept Israel after the passage of the nation-state law should serve as a wake-up call to Israel’s legislators and legal scholars.