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The Fear of an Israeli Referendum

In his post supporting a referendum on any Palestinian peace agreement (“Democracy is Not an Obstacle to Peace”), Jonathan Tobin asked why peace processors would possibly fear a referendum:

It is true that if a peace agreement were to be submitted to a vote, that would raise the possibility that Israel’s voters would reject it. But if a deal was truly in Israel’s best interests, what exactly are advocates of a two-state solution worried about?

It’s a good question. Let me try to address it–because the answer is probably something other than a fear that the referendum might fail.

To appreciate the real answer, it is useful to review the reason a referendum was rejected in 2005, when Ariel Sharon proposed his disengagement plan, left the Likud after the party referendum rejected it, and thereafter refused to allow a national referendum. At the time, Haaretz editorialized against a referendum, citing the defeat of the EU constitution in a French referendum:

Legislatures, governments and heads of the executive branch (presidents or prime ministers) are elected in order to bear the burden of making difficult decisions. Abandoning this responsibility and transferring it to the general public, which does not weigh the constraints and the available resources the way elected officials are supposed to do, transfers the vote from the domain of the intellect to that of emotion … Sunday’s vote in France constitutes fresh, additional proof of why Israel must not adopt this system.” [Emphasis added].

The Haaretz editorial approached self-parody–an elite paper with a small circulation was telling the public it was not smart enough to appreciate the issues, because the public was allegedly not equipped to “bear the burden of making difficult decisions”; it was short on intellect and long on emotion; it didn’t “weigh the constraints” or consider “the available resources”; and if you doubt that, just look at France–fresh proof of what happens when you let the public vote!

But the real reason behind the opposition to a Gaza referendum was not that it might lose. Public opinion polls showed it would win a majority of Israeli votes. Nor was the real reason the technical objections advanced by those such as the prominent Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, who argued in a Jerusalem Post column that there was no Israeli precedent for a referendum; there was no established procedure for one; it would take too much time; it was too difficult to frame the precise question for the voters; etc.

All the problems cited by Avineri seemed superable to me, and I asked him about them: couldn’t the problems be handled, and wouldn’t a referendum provide a needed legitimacy for the withdrawal plan? In response, Avineri told me the real reason he thought a referendum was a bad idea–one he said he could not put in print: the referendum would pass, but it would not receive a majority of the Jewish vote. It would pass only because of Israeli Arab votes, and then it would be politically impossible to withdraw from Gaza.

A withdrawal from Judea and Samaria on a narrow majority vote, however, would be problematic irrespective of the issue that concerned Avineri. Withdrawing 8,000 people from Gaza was difficult and divisive, and produced nothing but a new war. Withdrawing from historic Jewish land on the West Bank, acquired in a defensive war, with critical strategic significance–uprooting tens of thousands (the demographic equivalent of millions of Americans), destroying longstanding Jewish communities, exposing the long Eastern border to the same military consequences resulting from the Northern and Southern withdrawals–is not possible without something approaching a public consensus.

The only peace agreement that might produce such a consensus is one that meets Benjamin Netanyahu’s criteria: an end-of-claims agreement that includes Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, with defensible borders, reflecting realities on the ground.

Peace processors might be satisfied with an agreement falling short of those criteria, believing–as Haaretz and Avineri did–that a peace agreement will itself create peace, and that the issue is too important to risk a referendum. But the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly promised its own public a referendum, and no peace processor has objected to it as an obstacle to peace. On the contrary, it is critical that any eventual peace agreement be endorsed by a Palestinian referendum, not simply signed by an aging holdover president. And if the peace agreement meets Netanyahu’s criteria, the Haaretz/Avineri fears about an Israeli referendum will not likely be a problem. 



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