Lax MKs and a complex constitution

A haphazard and flawed constitution with insufficient Knesset consideration is worse than none at all.

knesset 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
knesset 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The none-too-sterling work ethic of our parliamentarians is legend. Their plenum attendance records are abysmal. Even ceremonial functions and seemingly historic sessions fail to attract MKs. Thus, visiting Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko addressed a nearly empty Knesset just last week. The excuse is inevitably the same: MKs' contribution mustn't be measured by their plenum appearances but by their dedicated exertion behind the scenes, performing unglamorous committee tasks. Yet our supposedly ever-toiling elected representatives are also serially absent from committee hearings, like the one last Monday of the Knesset Law Committee. It was potentially one of the most significant ever on the current Knesset's calendar. That, however, didn't suffice to sway its members to turn up. The committee's agenda was made pressing by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent announcement that for the state's upcoming 60th birthday, he would give it the gift none of his august predecessors could manage for six decades - a constitution. It's questionable that the feat is feasible at all; it certainly cannot be accomplished overnight by waving a magic executive wand. Therefore, to fulfill Olmert's ambitious promise, Law Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) convened the members to launch deliberations into the document that is meant to mold our democracy for the indefinite future. In order to achieve in a few short months something that has not been possible for so long, hectic, round-the-clock legislative diligence is presumably mandated. An extemporary constitution featuring high-minded declarative clichés might be easier to compose, but its long-range potential harm cannot be overestimated. Though all of this should be obvious to the relevant committee members, they were nonetheless unable to muster sufficient respect for the paramount responsibility thrust upon them as to bother to show up. Ben-Sasson arrived to find himself the lone participant. Later, MKs Taleb a-Sanaa (United Arab List-Ta'al) and Yitzhak Levy (NRP-National Union) joined him, a pitiful showing for a committee that comprises 17 members. A-Sanaa said he was only there to register the Arab sector's objections for the protocol (he is the only Arab MK not to boycott constitution discourse) and Levy left after the lunch-break. This is a travesty even greater than the one in 1992, when the ultra-problematic Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty was enacted by a minority of MKs (31 for, and 21 opposed). The Knesset majority presumably didn't consider that matter, either, a serious enough issue to warrant its attention. Some of the no-shows then were later among those who vociferously complained that the eminently imperfect Basic Law served to enable Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak to effect his "judicial revolution" and exploit that quasi-constitutional law to redraw the balance of power between the branches of government, bolstering the court's sway vis-à-vis the legislature. Legislative slackness facilitated Barak's unparalleled judicial activism, and certain powers that had been conferred upon the people's elected representatives were allowed by these very remiss representatives to be partially usurped by the non-elected judiciary. The sidelined legislature had no one to blame but itself for its sidelining then. Monday's Law Committee farce perturbingly indicates that the MKs have learned nothing in the decade-and-a-half since. The drive to fashion a constitution should become much more than an accelerated prime-ministerial aspiration. It can be transformed into an opportunity to treat this nation's unique situation with the profound seriousness it deserves. The last thing Israel needs is further ill-considered pseudo-constitutional legislation exacerbating all the shortcomings of the 1992 precedent. If anything, the current impetus to produce an ostensible constitution should encourage legislators to fix what was warped by default 15 years ago. But if the matter is not to be addressed seriously, and Monday's attendance debacle is a dire start, it would be preferable to continue without a formal constitution. Britain seems to be managing. Though the defunct USSR possessed a magnificently worded constitution, it is not difficult to determine whether greater freedoms prevailed in London or Moscow. If our MKs cannot rise to the occasion, then the least they owe their voters is to own up to their deficiencies and leave things as they are. Israel has thus far, under exceptionally inimical conditions, coped without a full formal constitution far more impressively than most democracies, to say nothing of countries with constitutions (most of which are far from democratic). A haphazard and flawed constitution - produced with insufficient Knesset consideration - is worse than none at all.