The Case for a National Referendum in Israel Reply

The Palestinians have already called for a national referendum on any potential final-status agreement — in order to guarantee a lasting agreement, Israel will have to follow suit.

By: Aaron Magid

Opposition has been fierce towards the recent law calling for a national referendum  on dividing Jerusalem. Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich called the bill “an attempt to torpedo any peace deal” in advance. Nonetheless, a referendum could be an essential tool to reduce chances for an internal conflict, bolster democratic transparency after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, and strengthen the legitimacy of a contentious peace agreement.

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On criticized the referendum declaring, “It hurts the status of the Knesset and the sovereign authority of the representatives of the Israeli government. But, were the legitimacy of parliaments in France, Bulgaria and other democracies questioned in the wake of their rare referendums? French voters rejected the European Union’s proposed constitution in a 2005 referendum, and Bulgarian citizens recently voted on the construction of a nuclear power plant.
However, the referendum question is far more urgent in Israel due to the undemocratic practices of previous Israeli governments. Labor Party chairman Amram Mitzna campaigned enthusiastically for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and isolated West Bank settlements before the 2003 election. At the time, Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rebuffed his plan emphasizing the sacredness of settlements, even in Gaza, exclaiming, “The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv.”

If the Israeli population had been genuinely interested in supporting a Gaza evacuation, then they would have voted for Mitzna’s platform. Yet, Sharon and the Likud party emerged victorious. Only after the 2003 election did Sharon propose the disengagement plan, which he bulldozed through the Knesset, ignoring the wishes of Israeli voters who had supported him based on his hawkish credentials. Sharon’s deception provided the right wing with legitimate grievances and his undemocratic actions were a major factor in the heightened tensions within Israel.

It is true that many lawmakers advocating for this law have toxic intentions. Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) argued that the referendum would provide another “wall” to prevent Israel from abandoning its “homeland.” Yet polls have repeatedly demonstrated that the Elkin’s analysis is mistaken. A 2013 survey showed that 55% of Israelis would likely back any deal Netanyahu presents with only 25% opposing.

Given that the referendum will be conducted in a more optimistic atmosphere – after a deal is reached and when Israel’s international ties will be bolstered and the potential economic fruits of a peace deal will be in reach – respondents will probably support the referendum in even higher numbers.

Another criticism offered by the left is that only Israelis will participate in the referendum and not the occupied Palestinians. However, Palestinians will have their own opportunity to vote: President Abbas has promised to bring any final peace deal to a Palestinian referendum. Even Hamas has agreed to abide by the results of such a referendum, providing Abbas with legitimacy that no other action could provide. It seems improbable for a right-wing Israelis to adopt a more hostile approach to the legitimacy of a referendum than Hamas. Although leftists oppose Netanyahu’s referendum, why doesn’t Meretz or Labor criticize Abbas for the same exact decision? Such rhetoric appears to be more politically not ideologically based.

Since the talks were conducted secretly between the two sides, both leaders have shielded their populations from these historic discussions – or, in the words of Daoud Kuttab “played God” over their lives. While the leaders may justifiably speak behind closed doors to allow for more negotiating room, such actions prevent the public from playing its just role of debating and engaging with its leaders on such a critical issue. After months of secrecy, a public referendum would balance the scales.

Just as in 2003, Israel’s current government has not received a popular mandate to make far-reaching concessions. Netanyahu campaigned on a robust security policy, and the second largest party, Yesh Atid, ran away from diplomatic issues before the elections. The only two parties that voiced vigorous support for meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, Hatnuah and Meretz, received a mere 12 votes combined. If Netanyahu were to accept a deal that demanded the withdrawal from nearly all of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem without a referendum, then he would be trampling upon the will of the people, who has not yet spoken.

The 2005 Gaza withdrawal caused deep divides in Israel, with painful images on television of Israeli soldiers pulling settlers from roofs. A final peace deal would require more substantial concessions with likely ten times the amount of settlers evacuated, the division of holy sites in Jerusalem and major security risks. Without a referendum, the Israeli public will justifiably feel hoodwinked and the likelihood for civil unrest will jump. In addition to preserving national unity, following an event more polarizing than even the 1948 Altalena affair, the referendum will provide popular legitimacy to any reached agreement and reduce the credibility of oppositional actors as outliers.

When Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, as an authoritarian leader he never received the support of his people. Consequently, opposition to the peace treaty within Egyptian society is fierce; in 2011 a mob forcibly entered the Israeli Embassy following increased violence in the region. Israelis consistently pride themselves on their democratic nature in contrast to their Arab neighbors. However, if Netanyahu imitates Ariel Sharon and the disengagement, and agrees to divide Jerusalem in secret talks with the Palestinians after campaigning on the exact opposite policy, then are Israel’s leaders any different from the autocratic Sadat? Only a national referendum could save Israel from this unflattering comparison.

Aaron Magid is a Staff Writer at The Jerusalem Review. You can reach him on Twitter at @AaronMagid

Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared in Ha’aretz, you can see it here.

Photo credit: TLVshac, Flickr Commons


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