Commentary Magazine


Topic: referendum

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.

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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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Democracy is Not an Obstacle to Peace

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been a piñata for those who think he should make even more concessions than his country has already made to the Palestinians even if the other side has shown no willingness to negotiate, let alone sign an agreement. But Thursday, he was assailed on another issue relating to the peace process. During a media session with a visiting foreign minister, he made it clear that if peace ever were to be signed, he would insist on the accord being submitted to the people of Israel for a vote.

This suggestion, made in the course of a discussion with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, whose nation is well known for its use of referendums, prompted some on the Israeli left as well as other Netanyahu critics to cry foul. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, even a member of his own government doesn’t like the idea:

Left-leaning Israeli supporters of a peace deal have long argued that a referendum could impede the leadership’s ability to seal a treaty with Palestinians.

[Tzipi] Livni, a former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians under the government led by Ehud Olmert, Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, has publicly opposed the idea of a referendum. Ms. Livni now leads her own party, which is considered dovish on peace issues. She told Israel’s Army Radio a few days ago, “At the moment, a referendum is a way to forestall decisions approved by the Parliament and the cabinet.”

But rather than impeding peace, Netanyahu’s support for a referendum on any agreement with the Palestinians is the only way it can be implemented with the full support of the vast majority of Israelis.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been a piñata for those who think he should make even more concessions than his country has already made to the Palestinians even if the other side has shown no willingness to negotiate, let alone sign an agreement. But Thursday, he was assailed on another issue relating to the peace process. During a media session with a visiting foreign minister, he made it clear that if peace ever were to be signed, he would insist on the accord being submitted to the people of Israel for a vote.

This suggestion, made in the course of a discussion with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, whose nation is well known for its use of referendums, prompted some on the Israeli left as well as other Netanyahu critics to cry foul. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, even a member of his own government doesn’t like the idea:

Left-leaning Israeli supporters of a peace deal have long argued that a referendum could impede the leadership’s ability to seal a treaty with Palestinians.

[Tzipi] Livni, a former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians under the government led by Ehud Olmert, Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, has publicly opposed the idea of a referendum. Ms. Livni now leads her own party, which is considered dovish on peace issues. She told Israel’s Army Radio a few days ago, “At the moment, a referendum is a way to forestall decisions approved by the Parliament and the cabinet.”

But rather than impeding peace, Netanyahu’s support for a referendum on any agreement with the Palestinians is the only way it can be implemented with the full support of the vast majority of Israelis.

It should be conceded that Livni is correct when she points out that the only thing necessary for any Israeli government to legally implement any measure is to get a bare one-vote majority in the Knesset. But she should learn from her nation’s experiences in the last 20 years when such razor-thin margins were used to implement the most far-reaching changes in security policy.

Israelis well remember that the late Yitzhak Rabin secured the passage of the Oslo II agreement with the Palestinians in 1995 by bribing members of the opposition to cross the aisle and back it by offering them offices and other perks. Ariel Sharon promised his Likud Party that he would submit his plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza to a party vote and then ignored the result when it went against him. In each of these cases, the use of tricks that were intended to thwart the will of the people undermined the legitimacy of the cause they bolstered.

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?

While foreign leaders have often lectured the Jewish state about the need for it to take risks for peace, Israelis know that is exactly what they have been doing for 20 years since the first Oslo Accord was signed and paying heavily for it in blood. But it is a truism that any time the Palestinians show any signs of actually wanting peace, they know there is a solid majority of Israeli voters that will back efforts to make it a reality. That was why the original Oslo deal was greeted euphorically by so many in the country. If the parties that staked their political future on peace have collapsed, it is solely because the Palestinians exposed those hopes as a cruel hoax that was a prelude to a war of terror. But were Mahmoud Abbas to go to Jerusalem, as Anwar Sadat did, and declare himself ready to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, give up on the dream of its destruction and negotiate borders, it’s likely that the old pro-Oslo majority would be resurrected.

More to the point, if Israel is expected to give up territory and uproot at least some of the communities it has planted in the West Bank on land that is integral to Jewish history, the path to such an outcome must not be the result of parliamentary tricks. The only way to get the majority of Israelis to make such a painful sacrifice is by giving every one of them a choice via the ballot. Livni, who apparently still hopes to one day sit in Netanyahu’s seat, should have more respect for the voters whom she wishes to lead.

Of course, so long as the Palestinians are divided between the Islamists of Hamas, who are open about their commitment to violence and Israel’s destruction, and the so-called moderates of Fatah, who talk of peace but do everything to foment hatred and avoid peace talks, this discussion is purely theoretical.

Those who wish to ignore the reality of Palestinian rejectionism often say that the preservation of Israeli democracy requires the nation to divest itself of the West Bank. But even if that is so, that cause cannot be secured by undemocratic means. If the sea change in Palestinian culture that would enable a peace deal ever does occur, the agreement that would stem from that development must be submitted to the Israeli people for approval in an unambiguous manner. Those who oppose this idea cannot do so without forfeiting their right to lecture the Israelis about democracy.

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