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Seven months and seven days. That's all the time the Knesset has left to prepare a constitution and fulfill Prime Minister's Ehud Olmert's wish of drafting the historic document as a gift for Israel's 60 birthday.
How that goal will be reached, and what that final document will look like, remained uncertain, however, as the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee began an intensive series of meetings this week to deliberate the issue.
So far, they have almost finished the preamble.
"The prime minister's mention of the constitution in his opening address to the Knesset emphasizes the importance being placed on this issue by the government," said MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), who chairs the committee. "We are working with everyone and checking to make sure that all the parties are up to date on what is being drafted."
Although all the parties are represented in the 17-member panel, and any MK can attend the discussions, the prime minister's announcement that a constitution is within sight reawakened debate among party factions over what type of document would best represent the State of Israel.
The panel began its work with a document that was drafted by the committee during the previous (16th) Knesset. Led by MK Michael Eitan (Likud), the previous committee drafted more than 1,000 pages that included three versions of the constitution proposed by the Israel Democracy Institute, the Institute for Zionist Strategy and the Israel Religious Action Center.
Ben-Sasson has since whittled the document down significantly. While critics allege that he is leaving out critical points to avoid controversy, the committee chairman has argued that achieving the broadest possible document, representative of all the citizens of Israel, is the ultimate goal.
"You can't have a constitution based only on a coalition majority, or only on a majority of the citizens. It needs to be broader," he said.
To achieve the consensus he seeks, Ben-Sasson has already had to remove any mention of the Law of Return. The current draft evades the issue by including a general statement that "every Jew is entitled to immigrate to Israel."
Another topic being debated is any mention of the word "equality," as there are arguments between secular and religious Jews, and with Arabs, over how that term should be defined.
The definition of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state" has created another hurdle for the committee, as many Arab parties object to the word "Jewish," while religious parties object to the word "democratic."
Ben-Sasson has held firm that the phrasing remain as it is, and so far Arab MKs have boycotted many of the sessions.
In the plenum, however, the constitution faces another challenge. According to the coalition agreement, any party in the government has the right to veto a constitution.
Therefore, Ben-Sasson has been laying the groundwork to ensure that all of the coalition partners support the constitution.
Two of the parties, Israel Beiteinu and Shas, have already issued ultimatums and items they want added to the constitution before they will give their support. Both want constitutional courts created that would oversee the interpretation of the constitution.
"We feel that a constitutional court is an absolute necessity. Such a court would represent all sectors of society," said MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu).
Officials from the Justice Ministry and other leading legal experts oppose a constitutional court because they fear its members - rabbis, politicians and figures from the private sector - would be elected with political bias that would render it ineffective.
"There are many more issues left to be discussed. We are making serious progress and I hope that a vote on parts of the constitution will be completed before December 1," Ben-Sasson said this week. "All the chapters will be integrated into one heavy document of 200 clauses and 16 or 17 chapters."
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