Thursday, September 01, 2005
Better no constitution than the wrong constitution
Keeping Iraq together
Shlomo Avineri, political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, critiques the Iraqi draft constitution, arguing that "even if ratified, it has a slim chance of becoming the operative basic document that could keep Iraq together."
Choice quotes: "It is obvious that it has no chance of ever being implemented." "It abounds in glaring internal contradictions." "The disintegration of Iraq is bound to continue."
I don't know enough about Iraq to agree or disagree. My point, rather, is in my headline, and is hinted at by the Dry Bones cartoon above: Better to have no constitution than to adopt the wrong constitution.
Constitution for Israel?
With increasing momentum in Israel recently for the adoption of a written constitution, this lesson is all the more important. American immigrants tend to be especially obsessed with the need for Israel to adopt a constitution, deriving, no doubt, from the near-sanctified status Americans accord their own Constitution.
But you don't have to know much about political history to understand that a written constitution cannot maintain the integrity of a nation destined to collapse. In fact, the wrong constitution can be far more devastating for a society than not having one at all.
France is on its Fifth Republic - what happened to its first four constitutions? Weimar Germany had a democratic constitution, which gave way to the Nazi takeover. The Soviet Union had a famously liberal constitution - not that it was ever taken seriously - until one day the USSR just vanished.
And then there's the U.S. The much-hailed Constitution was actually the second American constitution, adopted after the failure of its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution itself, due to its ambiguities and its papering over of severe internal differences, was arguably one of the causes of the American Civil War. To this day, disputes over the meaning of the Constitution are a constant feature of American political discourse.
As American scholar Robert Bork writes in a letter to Azure, "Written constitutions are not cure-alls; they can create perils and encourage corruptions of their own."
Ofir Haivry, writing for the editors of Azure: "Recent political experience... teaches that the absence of a compelling national idea can be enough to tear a state apart." He wasn't thinking about Iraq at the time, but it's as true for Iraq as it is for Israel.
What about the Palestinians?
To take things one step further: The lessons for the proposed Palestinian state should be obvious. No matter how much sovereignty and independence it is granted, a state comprising the separate territories of the West Bank and Gaza, joined by a narrow corridor through Israel, with residents separated from family members and compatriots who are Israeli citizens, home to millions who consider themselves refugees from their original family homes in Israel, will never have the coherence and common purpose necessary to build and maintain a state over time. Unless, of course, that common purpose is the destruction of Israel.
Interestingly, Ehud Ya'ari, perhaps Israel's leading commentator on Arab affairs, has concluded that the Palestinians do not really want a state of their own. Need I say it again? There will be no Palestinian state.