Israeli forum ponders need for constitution, 2nd legislative body

A group of Israeli leaders may push for the establishment of a second legislative house besides the Knesset.An impressive council of leading Israelis is examining fresh new ideas on how the country is run.The idea of establishing a second legislative …

A group of Israeli leaders may push for the establishment of a second legislative house besides the Knesset.An impressive council of leading Israelis is examining fresh new ideas on how the country is run.

The idea of establishing a second legislative assembly, alongside the Knesset, was discussed at length by a cross-section of 70 leading figures from the worlds of politics, academia and law. The meeting was held in March in the framework of the seventh conference of the Public Council, a body established by the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank based in Jerusalem, to discuss and generate agreement on the constitutional process.

Participants looked at various questions concerning a constitution – who should draft it, and who should ratify it – and whether it should include provisions for the establishment of a senate-like body.

“A second house could rescue us from the governmental crisis in which we find ourselves, and change the political culture in Israel so that better people would be attracted to politics,” said Dr. Arye Carmon, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, initiator of the gathering at Neveh Ilan.

The Public Council, headed by former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, includes a range of 100 figures from public life spanning the political spectrum.

Why bring together such an impressive roster of personalities to look at, of all issues, constitutional reform?

“The conflict with the Palestinians is short-term,” Carmon said. “When it is solved we will still have internal problems plaguing Israel – and they are long-term issues. We want to lay the basis for the existence of a stable democracy for the long term.”

Carmon compares the effort to that of the Founding Fathers of the United States who, after the War of Independence, sat down in Philadelphia from May through September 1787 to hammer out the principles of a constitution.

Israel skipped this process. In the early years of the state leaders decided it was impossible to come up with a constitution that all sectors could agree upon.

Instead, the state has legislated on a piecemeal basis a series of 11 Basic Laws, encoding the structure of government and civil rights. The last one was passed in 1992. But many areas are not included in these laws, and Carmon doubts the Knesset will succeed in passing additional ones.

Carmon said there’s an urgent need for action. At this point, he’s not sure which is the bigger threat to Israel, the external physical one from the Intifada or the array of internal threats.

“The deep splits in the country are a real danger to democracy and society as a whole,” he said, citing dissent over the definition of the Jewish nature of the state; the debate over the nature of the government, with some striving for a theocracy; the split between veteran Israelis and new immigrants; and the gap between “haves” and “have-nots,” not to mention the divide between Arab and Jewish Israelis.

A Constitution could help navigate the way around some of the most divisive issues by defining the boundaries between freedom of religion and freedom from religion, Carmon said. In the absence of a constitution, these issues are frequently decided upon either by hasty Knesset legislation and/or rulings of the High Court of Justice. Neither of these is good for democracy, he said.

Secondly, if the constitution also includes provisions for a second legislative house, that body could ease some social tensions by defining the population differently – for instance, through a system of regional representation. “That would encourage joint camps of veterans and new (immigrants), religious and secular, who band together to advance common regional interests.”

Finally, Carmon said the actual process of drafting a constitution is no less important than the product. “If it is done by consensus, the process itself can have a healing effect,” he said. In fact, the IDI’s project is called “Constitution by Consensus” and the Public Council’s mandate is to explore and propose constitutional options that have broad public support.

If many Israelis are already familiar with the potential advantages of a constitution, the idea of having a second legislative body is more novel – and probably, on the face of it, less enticing to many.

After all, since there is already deep disenchantment with the Knesset and its members, why form a second body?

Carmon acknowledges that the Knesset is held in low esteem by much of the public, and that its image is worsening all the time. But he maintains that the establishment of a second legislative body could improve the functioning of the Knesset in several ways.

The Knesset is already over-burdened as a legislative body, he said, noting that only 80 of its 120 members can serve on the various committees that draft legislation because the remaining 40 are also ministers or deputy ministers. The overlap of the legislative and executive functions also makes the Knesset a less-effective watchdog of government, he said. And the Knesset often passes potentially significant laws with little thought. “The unbearable lightness of the legislative process, especially of the Basic Laws, must end,” he said.

“A second body can act as a buffer, slowing down and deepening the legislative process.”

Depending on how that body is selected, it would be less likely to make decisions on the basis of short-term electoral considerations.

“The Knesset would still be the supreme body, but this additional assembly would make the legislative process more rational,” Carmon said.

There is no shortage of models for a second legislative assembly, from Britain’s House of Lords where members serve for life, to the United States, where senators serve for six years (with a third of them elected every two years).

Participants at the conference examined the systems of some 24 democracies that have dual legislative assemblies to find the most appropriate model for Israel.

Carmon believes that changing the system may gradually change the political culture in Israel.

“I see democracy like a river,” he said. “The challenge facing us is: how do we build a wall around the river to channel its flow without damaging its contents?”