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A quote from MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) in yesterday's Ma'ariv that he favors enlarging the Knesset from 120 to 180 members drew mostly ridicule. If those we've already got are no good, goes the reasoning, why do we need another load of them?
But the Knesset Justice Committee chairman's proposal was of a totally different order - the adding of new MKs only one detail of a much more ambitious plan that the committee will begin to discuss next month. The full Hebrew name of his committee - the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee - is a throwback to the days of Israel's first Knesset, whose main role was to frame a constitution for the nascent state.
A variety of political, security, religious and social problems prevented the original members from completing their task, and Ben-Sasson said he believes that "this generation might be ready. At least I have to try."
Aware of the enormity of the task, Ben-Sasson is planning to attack the issue first in an informal manner, something he has already been doing in quiet talks with Knesset colleagues, including those of the Arab and ultra-Orthodox parties, who tend to oppose any talk of a constitution.
Next month, as the Knesset winter session begins, the committee will hold three day-long seminars in which various aspects of the constitution will be discussed by MKs and legal experts. Ben-Sasson is dividing the effort between the part of the constitution dealing with an Israeli Charter of Rights, containing explosive questions such as the real meaning of a Jewish state, immigration rights and minority rights - which will naturally take much more time - and the more practical, administrative part, which deals with the election system and the functions of the Knesset.
"These are not my ideas," stressed Ben-Sasson. "We are continuing the work of my predecessor, [Likud MK] Mickey Eitan, who started the research on a constitution three and a half years ago. In addition, we have talked with various experts and looked at the systems abroad."
Among the ideas that Ben-Sasson is now advocating is combining the proportional election system, which Israel has now, with local elections, which will give voters more say not only on which party represents them, but on who those representatives will be. He is also in favor of gradually raising the electoral threshold, currently at 1.5 percent, to 4%, a step he believes will eliminate splinter parties and allow for more stable coalitions.
Another major objective is to make the Knesset more effective as a legislative body and give its members more time to properly inspect the government's actions.
"That's why I'm in favor of having more MKs," said Ben-Sasson. "In today's system, a third of the MKs are either ministers or committee chairpersons and the rest have to be members of half a dozen committees and very little real work gets done. If people can't accept having more MKs, then we've got to have the Norwegian system, in which all the ministers automatically resign after being appointed, allowing new MKs with time for parliamentary activity to join instead of them."
Ben-Sasson also said he wants to make it harder to table a no-confidence motion against the government.
"It's almost impossible for the motions to pass and they're just wasting the Knesset's time," he said. "Instead, only a motion that is backed by the support of a minimum of 61 MKs for a different prime minister should be allowed."
Although a first-term MK fresh from the world of academia, Prof. Ben-Sasson is no neophyte. He realizes that it will be extremely difficult to gain the support of the various parties, especially the smaller ones, which will limit the ability of politicians to make do with support from their own small circles. And walking onto the field of constitutional values and rights is like trying to pass through a minefield.
But he believes that whatever the odds, the issues have to be put on the agenda, and of course, there is also room for bargaining. Ultra-Orthodox parties who have traditionally opposed any notion of a secular "higher law" might be convinced to accept a constitution if, for example, it also included laws limiting the scope of the Supreme Court to intervene in the political process.
Talk of constitutional, electoral and governmental reform has suddenly become fashionable in Kadima, especially after the party's main program, realignment, was shelved. Critics are claiming that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's reported interest is merely a spin to cover up for a lack of an agenda.
Ben-Sasson, however, hotly denies that he is part of any spin.
"I have been talking about the constitution since I took over the committee," he said. "And besides, if I were doing it only for spin, I would do something about less controversial laws, like the role of the president. Instead, I'm seriously tackling the most difficult issues."
Ben-Sasson also predicted difficulty in selling parts of the program, even to members of his own party. One bone of contention could be his opposition to a presidential style of government, an idea favored by a number of senior Kadima members, including the party's founder, Ariel Sharon.
All the same, Ben-Sasson admitted that the current national crisis of confidence is good timing for his plan.
"I believe that we have three things going for us now," he said. "First, the work that has been going on for three and a half years. Second, the fact that there are already four different drafts from various sources for a constitution, and many in the public have already been exposed to them. And third, the events of the past few months have left many of us with a feeling of basic instability, and something fundamental should be done about it."