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Israel Exists Without a Constitution

August 16, 1987|Dan Fisher | Dan Fisher is a Times correspondent based in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — The dean of the Law School at Tel Aviv University, Uriel Reichman, wants to pick up where Israel's founding fathers left off nearly four decades ago.

Those pioneers promised in Israel's Declaration of Independence, on May 14, 1948, that within months they would adopt a proper constitution, setting down the basic system of laws and principles that would govern the Jewish state.

Beset by war and internal bickering over what, exactly, they wanted the country to be, they discovered that drafting a constitution was easier said than done.

Moreover, men like David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, preferred to make up the rules as they went along. They found that approach to be more in tune with the dynamism of the country's early years. And before long they put the whole notion of a constitution in cold storage, where it has been ever since.

Now, Reichman and three of his colleagues think it is time the issue was back on the national agenda. They have drafted a proposed constitution and begun a campaign to win grass-roots support.

The group's chances of succeeding appear uncertain at best, given the vested interest so many powerful political forces have built up in the current system. Yet the project has some political backing and surfaces at a time when there is widespread public criticism of the body politic.

The coalition now ruling Israel, formed in desperation after indecisive national elections in July of 1984, has as principal partners two parties with such opposing views that government is paralyzed on many fundamental issues.

"It is a unique situation right now in Israel, in which the politicians understand that the system can't function in the same way any longer," Reichman said.

This makes him optimistic. Building support for the proposed constitution will be "a process," he said. "I don't believe, let's say, that within six months we'll have it, but unless we start moving we won't (ever) have it."

The law professors see Israel's political imbroglio not as an aberration but as the natural culmination of at least a generation of decline. The heart of the problem, they say, is an ad hoc system of laws and political structures that may have worked in Israel's youth but are now increasingly out of tune as the country approaches its 40th birthday.

"Israel is in a substantial crisis," Reichman said, " which may in the long run endanger our democratic system and even our ability to survive. What we've seen in recent years, and especially in the last months, is that there is no policy in the country and there is no planning. What is happening is that every minister is running his own show, using the office for his own political survival. He appoints people from his faction within his party, supports interest groups that will help him survive, and tries to stop his colleagues."

He cited a recent incident in the West Bank: One minister sent a bulldozer to start work on a proposed new settlement and another minister, opposed politically, ordered the machine off the land.

Similarly, Reichman said, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, leader of the centrist Labor Alignment, is involved in a globe-trotting campaign on behalf of an international Middle East peace conference while Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, head of the rightist Likud Bloc, is doing everything he can to scuttle the idea.

"It's like a Byzantine court," Reichman said, "and there is no way the country can continue to function this way."

Meanwhile, he said, recent surveys show that as many as 30% of the people have taken an anti-democratic position on such issues as the rights of Arab citizens, that volunteerism is on the decline and vigilante activity on the rise.

To break the deadlock, Reichman and his colleagues--Baruch Bracha, Ariel Rosen-Tsvi and Amos Shapira--propose a constitution that would reduce the power of the political parties, strengthen the system of government checks and balances and guarantee individual freedoms in a bill of rights.

Among the most significant changes they recommend are:

-- The country would be divided into 60 constituencies; the people would vote directly for their representative in the Knesset (Parliament). The other half of the 120 seats in the Knesset would be filled, as now, by members named by the parties.

-- No party receiving less than 2.5% of the total vote cast nationally would be allowed a seat in the Knesset. This formula would eliminate half of the 16 parties now represented in the Knesset.

-- The prime minister would be elected directly, and he would appoint a Cabinet whose members would be barred from serving simultaneously in the Knesset.

-- The role of the Knesset would be strengthened, including powers of investigation it now lacks.

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