Yesterday’s vote by Israel’s Knesset to require a referendum to ratify any peace deal that involved the surrender of Jerusalem or the Golan Heights is being slammed in the Arab world as well as by other foes of the Jewish state. For Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, such a vote would be an “obstacle” to peace. Similarly, Israel Lobby author Stephen Walt believes it means the end of the two-state solution, since it “gives a veto to the hard-line settler faction.”
Such claims are laughable. In fact, assuming that the Palestinians were themselves interested in actually signing a peace deal (something they have repeatedly declined to do even when offered virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem, as they were in 2000 and 2008), the knowledge that any accord would have to be ratified by a referendum in which Israelis could vote it up or down would make it more, not less, likely to be accepted by an Israeli government.
One of the problems that helped undermine Israeli support for the Oslo process was the fact that a narrow parliamentary majority rammed it down the country’s throat. Even worse, the follow-up agreement to the first accord, known as Oslo II, was only secured after two members of the now defunct right-wing Tsomet Party crossed the aisle to Labor in exchange for promises of high office and other perks. This shady process helped fuel public opposition to the deal, though it must be conceded that most of the credit for convincing Israelis that their government was on the wrong path must go to the Palestinians and the campaign of terrorism they waged even though peace was supposed to have broken out.
Any Israeli government that chose to sign an agreement that called for the re-division of Jerusalem or handing the strategic Golan back to Syria would be strengthened by the knowledge that their decisions would have to be ratified by the people. They would be free to be more, not less, generous with a Palestinian partner who genuinely wanted peace, simply because such a government would be, in a sense, operating with a net. Without a referendum, acceptance of an agreement would be merely a matter of enforcing party discipline in the governing coalition. That would leave any government — especially one led from the right, as is Israel’s current coalition — vulnerable to accusations of betraying their voters. A referendum would give any peace deal the seal of democratic approval that it must have to succeed.
Moreover, far from ensuring that a deal would be defeated, the odds are that any referendum for a peace treaty would be passed, assuming it actually required the Arabs to accept Israel as a Jewish state within secure and accepted borders and without a “right of return” for the descendants of refugees, which would mean the country’s destruction. Israelis desperately want peace and might be inclined to accept anything that seems like a genuine solution even if they were skeptical about the Palestinians. That Walt thinks a referendum would give the settlers a veto shows that he understands Israel as poorly as he does America (whose foreign policy is, he thinks, directed by a pro-Israel cabal composed of a wall-to-wall coalition of liberals, moderates, and conservatives). Since a referendum would be a simple yes or no vote by the entire electorate, why would a group that makes up only a tiny percentage of the voting public have a veto?
But what most of those who have commented about this measure don’t mention is that so long as the political culture of the Palestinians regards the acceptance of a Jewish state as anathema no matter where its borders might be drawn or who controls Jerusalem, then any discussion of a referendum to ratify a peace deal is more science fiction than political science. After 17 years of fruitless concessions made in the name of peace, most Israelis have understandably grown cynical about a process that has proved to be an exchange of land for terror, not peace. If Abbas wants to change their minds, all he has to do is be willing to make peace and demonstrate to Israel’s people that he means it. Israeli democracy would be the best guarantee of a two-state solution, if only he were prepared to act as if he actually wanted one.