‘Turning Crisis into Opportunity’: Amidst Chaos in Israel a Constitutional Path Emerges, Analysts Say
by Andrew Bernard
After a chaotic day that ended with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing that he was pausing his judicial reform agenda until the Knesset reconvenes after Passover, Israel sits at a crossroads which could determine the future of the country’s political and legal identity, analysts told The Algemeiner.
Netanyahu and opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, respectively the heads of the second and third largest parties in the Knesset, are currently meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog to try and chart a path forward after the largest protests in the nation’s history. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s far-right Minister of National Security, declared on Monday, however, that the reforms will still pass.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the pause announcement will mollify the mass protests that have paralyzed Israel for more than 12 weeks, culminating on Monday in 600,000 Israelis taking to the streets and a one-day general strike by Israel’s largest labor union which shut down the country’s only airport and all of Israel’s diplomatic missions worldwide.
Yet in the wake of such uncertainty, Benjamin Netanyahu has an opportunity to build a legacy as the father of a written Israeli constitution — the first in the nation’s history — said Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.
“There are essentially two options and they are not mutually exclusive: One is that the government could go back to this process again, which could trigger yet another crisis on the streets of Israel,” Schanzer said. “And the other is that the dialogue that has been proposed by President Herzog between Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid could begin a historic process that could yield Israel the constitution that many have yearned for.”
“This is a man who has a history of turning crisis into opportunity,” Schanzer added. “It certainly seems that he has an opening. Whether he wants to follow through and walk through that door, I don’t know. But it is interesting now that he has the potential for this historic opportunity.”
But the barriers to Israel drafting a formal, written constitution are high — part of the reason that Israel didn’t adopt one in the first place. Israel elected a constituent assembly in 1949 charged with drafting a constitution, but that body renamed itself the Knesset and became Israel’s legislature.
Israel has been governed by ‘basic laws’ instead of a constitution ever since, as Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution explained.
“[The idea was] if they cannot agree on one constitution, therefore it’s better to kick the can down the road,” Sachs said. “The chickens have now come home to roost. But the same difficulty still remains.”
To try to break the deadlock and find consensus, Yair Lapid and others have proposed using Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence as a starting point in drafting a constitution that all Israelis can agree to. But Avraham Shalev, a lawyer and researcher at the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli think tank that has been one of the leading intellectual advocates of judicial reform for more than a decade, said such an approach would have potential pitfalls as well.
“The declaration of independence was never intended to be a constitution,” he said. “If it was, then we would have a constitution. It’s not a legal document. It’s not written in legal terms. It wasn’t meant to be that. It’s kind of like taking a great piece of literature or speech and making that into a constitution. You can find anything that you want there to justify any of your points, but it was not meant to be used in that sense.”
Some supporters of the judicial reform package, notably Netanyahu’s adult son Yair, have argued that US influence and the Biden administration have played an outsize role in halting the bills. The White House on Monday welcomed Netanyahu’s pause announcement. But FDD’s Schanzer said that while there are certainly groups that support the protests that have received money from the US and Europe, he did not see a hidden foreign hand behind the opposition movement.
“I asked a senior official who would be 100% in position to answer that question accurately, whether there was any indication of outside interference, and the person came back with a very clear answer in the negative,” Schanzer said.
The protest movement, with its sea of Israeli flags and singing of Hatikvah, the national anthem, also provides a glimpse into what a reinvigorated center-left might look like.
“The last time I saw the left out in these numbers was when Arafat was still a factor,” Schanzer said. “And I do wonder, and I did hear this from from others, whether the left is reinventing itself after years of being in an Oslo-induced coma.”
The Kohelet Forum’s Shalev said that in the midst of this deep political crisis, he still believes that ultimately Israel’s democracy will be strengthened by the experience and by what reforms will come.
“We’re about to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary, So, when you consider what has changed in 75 years, I am ultimately confident that Israeli society will come out of this stronger, and I hope that it really is an opportunity that people will look and say what sort of country do you want to be and what sort of rules and institutions do we want to guide us?” he said.