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Naomi Chazan
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Add more stakeholders to the mix, and Herzog’s plan might work

Better yet, first solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the rest will follow (Northern Ireland and South Africa can show the way)
Demonstrators rally in Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli government's overhaul of the judicial system, on February 18, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Demonstrators rally in Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli government's overhaul of the judicial system, on February 18, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Israel, as President Isaac Herzog so aptly put it in his recent address to its citizens, “is on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.” His prescription, however, falls far short of addressing either the scope or the severity of the crisis he describes. What is needed today goes far beyond the confines of a narrow compromise on judicial issues between political party leaders. It demands a bold, comprehensive, inclusive initiative that addresses all aspects of Israel’s current, truly existential, challenge. Beyond the role of the judiciary, such an undertaking contains basic structural, regime, economic, social, identity, normative, regional, and international dimensions.

The format suggested by President Herzog is inadequate for meeting this multi-faceted task. First, it focuses exclusively on reaching agreement on the limits of judicial independence, while ignoring the extent of ideological, social, economic, religious, national, and conceptual disagreements presently facing Israelis of all political persuasions. There is no evidence that ironing out a compromise on these constitutional matters will pave the way for an amelioration of more fundamental ills, though that seems to be the working assumption.

Second, the composition of the interlocuters in the president’s suggested process is painfully restricted. Although Mr. Herzog has consulted with an array of experts (ranging from jurists and economists to intellectuals and artists) and think-tanks (notably the Israel Democracy Institute and the Kohelet Forum), he has extended invitations to the consultative forum only to government, Knesset, and political party leaders. As polls consistently demonstrate, most citizens not only do not have confidence in these institutions, but they actually hold them responsible for the ongoing political turmoil. More to the point, the various components of civil society — the linchpin of the rapidly expanding civilian protest movement — are pointedly excluded. No serious cross-cutting understanding can be achieved or upheld with these participants alone.

Third, the attempt to divorce the domestic imbroglio from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is disingenuous, if not totally specious. Israel’s democratic crisis cannot be neatly disentangled from its ongoing rule over Palestinians beyond the Green Line against their will, just as the government’s proposed civilianization of Israel’s presence in the West Bank cannot be separated from the alarming escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in recent months. Any effort at reaching a working agreement between the disparate segments involved in the still spiraling situation on the ground must take these factors into account.

What is urgently needed now is a different, workable, framework for consultation and action — one that can contend with the panoply of issues and actors who must buy into any viable plan to be able to move beyond the existing conundrum. Adoption of such a format is especially pressing now. This week alone, votes on sweeping judicial changes are anticipated, widespread protests are planned, resolutions on the expansion of the Israeli presence in the West Bank are scheduled in the United Nations, and Ramadan begins. The various strands of the evolving crisis are at risk of coming to a boiling point. It is time to put another, more promising, alternative in place.

Some inspiration and direction from significant agreements reached in prolonged and seemingly intractable conflict areas — especially Northern Ireland and South Africa — can, with appropriate adjustments, provide precisely such a format. In both these cases, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became increasingly apparent that the continuous stalemate between the opposing sides (Unionists and Republicans in Northern Ireland; ruling whites, blacks and other minorities in South Africa) could no longer be sustained and that more drastic change was necessary to prevent further deterioration. Present circumstances in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are not dissimilar, even though stalwarts on all sides continue to insist that the peculiarities here are unique. They are not.

In both these instances, discrete talks between the warring factions on the basic principles for in-depth discussions presaged the commencement of a negotiating process. In the case of South Africa, these preliminary steps were brokered by internal groups, including religious leaders, industrialists, trade unions, and women’s organizations. In Northern Ireland, they also involved third-parties — most notably the United States — who sought to bring together local and governmental partners. In present-day Israel, some combination of local initiatives and foreign troubleshooting is in order.

These preliminary explorations sought to establish the guidelines for a feasible process. These two cases (along with other more recent examples) had in common an agreement to resolve differences in a peaceful manner and a commitment to equality and the protection of basic human and civil rights. They differed on the degree to which security arrangements were critical to the continuation of the process (more so in Northern Ireland, less salient in South Africa during the transition from apartheid).

In Israel, it may be more difficult to arrive at a consensus on the guiding principles than on the need for security guarantees. Since questions of human dignity, equality, and freedom are at the heart of the domestic political and conceptual rift, as well as of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, preliminary probes — some already in motion — may have to be undertaken at the outset by informal groups in civil and political society. They will in all likelihood gather steam, should the formal talks result in naught, continue to arouse widespread dissatisfaction, or fuel increased violence.

Once these first steps are completed, as they were in the relevant cases of South Africa and Northern Ireland, an overarching umbrella for talks can be constructed. In the former, CODESA (The Convention for a Democratic South Africa) was established with the participation of the key political parties and movements, representatives of civil society, trade unions, traditional rulers, and economic concerns — including a mandated 50 percent representation for women. Although initial talks stalled, in 1993, the reconvened convention launched a multi-party negotiating process (MPNP) which set down 34 principles for the new South Africa — along with a Bill of Rights — enabling the first inclusive democratic elections in the country and the subsequent formulation of a permanent constitution several years later. In the latter, the Civic Forum (also including cross-community women’s representation) ironed out the Multi-Party Agreement of 1998 which, alongside the British-Irish Agreement, became the key components of the Good Friday accords of April 1998.

In Israel, it is already clear that any conversation between competing groups and worldviews has to be based on significant societal as well as political participation. Such a representative framework could include a symbolic group of 120 representatives from all segments of the political spectrum and key actors in civil society — with full representation for women and the diverse elements of Arab society. It may also have to involve foreign governments, whose role in launching and guaranteeing a Palestinian-Israeli initiative under present conditions may be critical. Tellingly, such a combination of local and external partners is developing in actuality within the charged and distilled Jerusalem context, where grassroots initiatives are beginning to merge with discrete formal contacts which could yet yield a full-blown set of official negotiations.

Such a two-tiered approach, drawing on lessons learned from historical and comparative experiences, holds considerable promise, given the current alternative of persistent fragmentation and escalation. It is, however, by no means foolproof. As in similar cases, it will encounter considerable stumbling blocks and undergo inevitable twists and turns. But patience and commitment to ironing out ways to equitably live together can prevail with patience and perseverance.

Skeptics will undoubtedly point out that the international and regional environments today are far different than those that prevailed during the Cold War, and that the nature of present threats is more complex than in the past. They would do well to recall that nevertheless the Northern Ireland and South African confrontations in the early 1990s were long considered to be even more unresolvable. The dangers inherent in partial agreements reached under duress may compound existing dilemmas. They are also devoid of hope.

Crises also present major opportunities, as what is happening here now demonstrates. Those who still believe that there is hope for a better future would do well to set up a mechanism now for constructive and equitable change predicated on the scaffolding of new rules of the game and let formal actors join as other options prove unmanageable. This is the essence of successful protest and the key to the way forward. History proves that it is doable.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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