Commentary Magazine


Contentions

The Public Be Damned

Jonathan noted yesterday that foreign critics are outraged by Israel’s passage of a law this week mandating referenda on certain types of territorial concessions. But their outrage doesn’t hold a candle to that of Israel’s own left.

In today’s editorial, for instance, Haaretz complained bitterly that “the public is being given veto power over crucial decisions on foreign policy and security issues.” By “handcuffing the political leadership’s moves in the peace process,” it charged, Israel is spitting in the world’s face.

Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly complained that “this is not a good law,” because the world will think “Israel is rejecting peace and is handcuffing itself to avoid progress in the diplomatic process.”

These arguments are mind-boggling. First, why should anyone in the democratic world object to giving the public a say in “crucial decisions on foreign policy and security”? Haaretz’s editors would evidently prefer a dictatorship of Plato’s philosopher-king, with themselves on the throne. But democracies are supposed to give the public a say in crucial decisions.

That’s why Britain, for instance, held a referendum on joining the European Economic Community, while France held one on leaving Algeria. In the U.S., this goal is achieved by requiring treaties to be ratified by a two-thirds Senate majority, which is unachievable without significant bipartisan consensus.

But the even more shocking assumption behind these plaints is that, given a choice, the public would reject any deal likely to be signed — yet the government should sign it anyway, and the public be damned.

Like Jonathan, I think Israelis would in fact support any reasonable agreement. But no reasonable agreement would ever be brought to a referendum, because the law requires a referendum only if an agreement doesn’t pass the Knesset by a two-thirds majority. And any reasonable agreement would easily surpass this threshold.

The history of Israeli diplomatic agreements amply proves this point. The treaties with both Egypt and Jordan did pass the Knesset by a two-thirds majority, and both, despite producing a colder peace than Israelis hoped, have stood the test of time. In contrast, not a single agreement with the Palestinians ever came close to achieving a two-thirds majority — and every single one has proved a bloody failure.

Nor is this mere coincidence. The Jordanian and Egyptian treaties won sweeping majorities because both countries’ leaders had proved their commitment to peace: Anwar Sadat by his dramatic visit to the Knesset, in defiance of the pan-Arab boycott on Israel, and Jordan’s King Hussein by decades of quiet security cooperation. And both treaties succeeded because these leaders truly wanted peace.

The Palestinian agreements won only narrow majorities because many Israelis weren’t convinced that the Palestinians wanted peace. And these agreements failed because this skepticism proved well-founded.

Thus the referendum law won’t prevent any deal actually worth signing. Nor will it prevent another bad deal on the West Bank, since it applies only to territory annexed by Israel. But it will at least prevent a bad deal over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. And therefore, its passage is genuine cause for rejoicing.