Tzipi Livni on Why Israel Needs a Constitution

It's no secret that Israel is suffering from an identity crisis. The term "Jewish state" once seemed a fairly simple synonym for a nation with a Star of David on its flag. Now that term sparks all sorts of debates about demography, democracy, and the future of a country where the minority may soon be the majority. 

The Ideas ReportTzipi Livni stands at the political epicenter of this crisis. She is the head of Kadima, a party that emerged when Ariel Sharon became a few shades too liberal for his fellow Likud members. Today, centrist Kadima is Israel's largest party, but the complicated electoral system means Livni must sit and watch while Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government runs the country. 

For that reason and many others, it's not surprising that Livni is frustrated. During this talk with Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson, she insists that the Israeli people need to figure out who they really are. Isaacson asks if Israel could come up with a constitution at this stage in the game. Livni answers yes, but she qualifies her answer: She says that two of the country's most significant groups -- ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs -- would refuse to participate in its writing.

The complicated nature of this answer only underscores the dilemma Livni describes. Unlike the United States, Israel doesn't have a harmonizing mission or creation story. Its Jewish founders saw its purpose in a myriad of different ways -- as an idealistic socialist experiment, as a pragmatic refuge from genocide, as a placeholder nation waiting for the Messiah to resurrect the real Israel. 

Add to the mix a growing population of Arabs who, unlike their relatives in the territories, hold full Israeli citizenship, and the prospect of a unifying document becomes very tricky indeed. Here, Livni attempts to explain how a constitution written without input from minorities could still protect their rights as citizens.

More video from the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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