Herculean task

Israel’s Declaration of Independence has become the proverbial rope in a curious political tug-of-war.

Pro-Israel supporter in New York City (photo credit: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)
Pro-Israel supporter in New York City
(photo credit: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni this week appointed law professor Ruth Gavison to draft a constitutional provision defining the precise meaning of Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” attributes. Livni insisted that this is the “first-ever comprehensive effort” to grapple with the thorny issue.
Be that as it may, Israel’s Declaration of Independence has thereby become the proverbial rope in a curious political tug-of-war that has largely evaded the attention of the public. It all has to do with the “democratic and Jewish” catchphrase that has gained broad but unfounded acceptance as the Declaration’s clear decree regarding the state’s character.
The plain and incontrovertible fact of the matter is that the word “democratic” does not appear in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It only cursorily lists assorted fundamental individual freedoms “in the light of the vision of the prophets of Israel.”
Considering the authors’ meticulous attention to every nuance during a series of ultra-exhaustive consultations, this omission was no accident.
Moreover, David Ben-Gurion, who worded the Declaration’s final version, repeatedly argued that “this is no constitution,” and that the terse reference to civil liberties was required by the General Assembly Partition Resolution.
“We inserted the basic elements demanded of us by the UN,” he explained to members of the People’s Council (the embryonic parliament).
Nonetheless, in recent years, the Supreme Court has treated the Declaration’s imaginary conjoined adjective as an unassailable quasi-constitutional directive. Moreover, more frequently than not, the justices confer substantially greater weight to “democratic” than to “Jewish.”
Critics of the court’s interventionist proclivities see this as a dynamic that might turn Israel into an amorphous “state-for-all-its-citizens,” at the direct expense of its “national-state-of-the-Jewish-people” designation.
During the last Knesset’s term, this sufficiently alarmed MK Avi Dichter, then of Livni’s Kadima faction, to submit legislation that would secure the Jewish-state characterization and accord it preference in judicial deliberations.
Dichter’s bill has lately been resubmitted, in a significantly softened version, by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi).
It is against this bill that Livni has recruited Gavison and launched her quest for a “constitutional provision.”
Livni thus pitted herself directly against the Levin- Shaked proposal. She claimed that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had given his blessing to her initiative.
Not only is this hotly denied in Netanyahu’s bureau, but he is reported infuriated by the assertion.
Caught in an obvious untruth, Livni was forced to back down. Her amended account is that Netanyahu knew about Gavison’s appointment but didn’t support it. The bottom line is that he let Livni busy herself with whatever alternative formulations Gavison constructs for her but that these by no means oblige the government, the prime minister or any other minister.
As is, this is at most a PR stunt that might generate something only acceptable to Livni and Gavison.
Although Livni bears the chief onus in this instance, it is a shame that Gavison – an Israel Prize winner and a candidate for Supreme Court justice – allowed herself to be exploited. She should at the very least have demanded that a team be assigned to work alongside her.
Livni is of course free to wage her political battles as she will, but it is regrettable that she dragged so eminently gifted and esteemed a jurist as Prof. Gavison into this.
Deciding on the underlying definition of the state – whether one prefers Jewish or democratic – is not a oneperson undertaking by any criterion.
Even the great Ben-Gurion did not attempt it alone and did not assume sole responsibility for what he insisted (with considerable foresight) was not a constitution-indisguise.
Neither can constitutional authority be remotely claimed for the “constitutional provision” that Livni purports to produce.
This is too heavy a load for any one person to lift and bear, regardless of Gavison’s undisputed professional distinction.
Assessments regarding the rights of the Jewish collective in this land should never have been imposed on Gavison alone. In so doing, Livni did not honor her but far more likely did her an injustice.