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.