An Interview with Yohanan Plesner

I say young democracy because while we have a democracy that we're very proud of, it's also a very fragile one. We don't have a constitution. The fact that we don't have a constitution means that a simple Knesset majority can change our basic laws. This could lead to a complete concentration of all power among the political majority. So the preservation of the principle of separation of powers in Israel is delicate and has been threatened over the past few years. Once Mr. Netanyahu joined those who were threatening rather than defending those precarious democratic principles and institutions, it raised the degree of threat to our democracy.

This is why those three consecutive election campaigns were actually quite crucial to our future as a democracy. The fact that Netanyahu was not able in three consecutive election campaigns to achieve a decisive outcome in many ways protected our democratic institutions from him fulfilling an agenda that would have had long-term negative repercussions for our democratic vitality.

OR:  Do you think the drafting of a formal constitution is necessary for Israel’s political future? Do you think it can be done? How do you see the Gantz/Netanyahu government playing out?

Plesner: It's very difficult to tell about your second question. It will depend on the dynamics created between Gantz and Netanyahu. And in many ways, to be fair, it depends on Netanyahu and the way he decides to conduct his government. Because nobody will say that Gantz is not coming with a lot of good will to this government. He would not be a barrier to turning this government into a vehicle for positive change.

It depends on whether Netanyahu will get a trial and how he will choose to conduct himself. If both of them don't agree on agenda, nothing will move forward. I tend to think that this government will actually be, from an economic perspective, willing and able to make some significant decisions. I don't see it like the government we had in the mid-'80s that really overhauled the structure of our government and put us on a different trajectory for decades. I hope it will be done, but I'm not as optimistic.

On the issue of whether this will create a truce on some of the identity questions I raised, I'm more skeptical. I think at most we can hope for some kind of a ceasefire both in initiatives in rhetoric. And hopefully that the government will agree on reasonable nominations for this next state prosecutor and next attorney general. I wouldn't look for agreement on the fundamental constitutional matters that divide us.

That brings us to the first question. Obviously a constitution would be much desired and necessary for our fragile democracy, but I don't see the political circumstances that will enable it to materialize. The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), the organization that I head, actually led the process of designing a constitution by consent. We had leading intellectuals from across the spectrum agreeing on a blueprint for a constitution, and tried to promote it within the political system. But perhaps passing a constitution requires a constitutional moment, a formative moment. Whether it's a big crisis or the moment of the emergence and establishment of a state. As long as we don't have a constitutional moment — and to some extent I hope we won't have a constitutional moment, because that means a crisis — then what we can hope for is passing chapters of the constitution. Chapters on how we legislate basic laws, on what the relationship between the judiciary and the Knesset. If we had reasonable leadership I think we could pass some of those chapters with very broad consensus. From the data that we collect at IDI, some of the ideas that we've put forward win support of 70 percent of Israelis across identity and tribal groups. I think passing chapters of our constitution is a reasonable political goal, but requires more than reasonable leaders – it requires visionary leaders and good circumstances. I hope this government will produce that, but I'm more skeptical about it.