Netanyahu Headshot 311.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared during a tour of Ashkelon and Sderot this week that he would “bring to the people” any peace deal reached with the Palestinian Authority.
Though Netanyahu did not specify whether he would call a referendum or early elections, MK Ophir Akunis (Likud), who is close to the prime minister, said that he had received Netanyahu’s support for referendum legislation that he is drafting.
Political expediency seems to be a major factor behind the move. The
assurance that a referendum would be held before any arrangement is
finalized with the Palestinians would presumably help mollify
Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners, thus enhancing political
But the importance of holding a referendum on a dramatic, Israel-shaping
peace deal goes beyond the current government’s narrow political
interests. Since any conceivable accord would necessitate the
dismantling of Jewish settlements and the evacuation of settlers as a
prerequisite to the creation of a Palestinian state, it is absolutely
imperative that such a move receive wide public support.
Failing to do so could lead to particularly vicious infighting and
internal dissent as well as the alienation of a segment of Israeli
society that counts as its members some of our most patriotic,
idealistic and upstanding citizens.
THE IDEA of a referendum as a precursor to territorial compromise has
been raised on a number of occasions over the years, most recently
regarding prime minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from
Gaza and northern Samaria in 2005. Previously, a national poll of one
kind of another had been discussed, as an essential step before ceding
land to past enemies, within the context of the Oslo negotiations, talks
with Syria over the Golan Heights and the possibility of ceding parts
Some referendum critics claim it would circumvent the democratic
process. The real “referendum” takes place during national elections,
they say. Conducting a separate national poll undermines the Knesset’s
autonomy. If a special plebiscite is needed for territorial compromise,
they add, it could create a precedent for needing one for other “major”
decisions that the Knesset cannot be trusted to make. And if politicians
know that any future ceding of territory will be decided in a
referendum, their obligation to electoral constituents is weakened. They
are likely to skirt their responsibility to the voters who brought them
These arguments would have more weight if Israeli politicians elected on
a particular platform had not shown an infuriating tendency to suddenly
change their positions on central issues.
Yitzhak Rabin had vowed not to speak with the PLO, then entered into the
Oslo talks. Before agreeing to split Jerusalem during Camp David talks
with Yasser Arafat, prime minister Ehud Barak had attacked those who
advocated giving up parts of the capital to Palestinians as “alienated
from the Jewish people’s vision and hopes.”
Sharon won elections against Labor’s Amram Mitzna, who advocated a unilateral pullout from Gaza.
Even Netanyahu’s June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, which advocated a
Palestinian state, was something of a surprise from a leader who had
long warned of the security dangers of an independent Palestinian entity
in the West Bank.
In this fickle political climate, a referendum on so fateful an issue can ensure that the will of the people is carried out.
Part of the difficulty that settlement advocates had with the Gaza
disengagement was the feeling that Sharon, who circumvented the internal
referendum held by the Likud’s central committee, had betrayed his
constituency. Even religious settlers, who saw a referendum on ceding
parts of the Land of Israel as tantamount to holding a national poll on
permitting idolatry, were willing to agree for the sake of national
unity. Haredim who historically opposed referendums, for fear that one
would be used to change the religious status quo, agreed for the same
AT THE time of the disengagement, some supporters of the pullout claimed
that the incessant debate preceding the vote would tear the nation
apart. But precisely the opposite is true. Settlers who know that the
vast majority of Israelis support a territorial compromise would be more
willing to accept it as “the will of the people” even if they
That’s another central reason why, if and when a peace agreement is
reached with the Palestinians, it is of the utmost importance that
Netanyahu “bring it to the people.”