Borderline Views: Yes to a referendum

The government decision to go to referendum before implementing any agreement involving territory may not be such a bad thing.

Gaza Border 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Gaza Border 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last week’s decision by the government to insist on a referendum before implementing any future peace agreement involving withdrawal from territory has been attacked by the Left as a move aimed at preventing such an agreement from ever taking place. The pro-referendum forces within the government are convinced that the majority of the population, mistrustful as it is of the country’s Palestinian and Arab neighbors, will vote against a peace agreement. The government will be able to argue that it did its best, but that the will of the people was even stronger. How, it will argue, could the government ignore the voice of the people?
If and when we ever arrive at that point, there is still much to be discussed concerning the nature of the referendum. Will it be a single question, simply asking people to vote for or against a peace agreement, the details of which have been presented to the country, or will there be complicated questions which will ask the people to vote for specific clauses, depending on specific outcomes?
Who will vote? Will it be limited, as many of the more anti-democratic elements will demand, to Jewish residents. Or will it encompass the entire population?
A referendum which discriminates against the country’s 20 percent Arab minority will not, of course, be seen as anything which can be labelled democratic and will have no status in international opinion. It will simply prove what Israel has been trying to deny throughout its 60 years of existence – that the country cannot be labelled as both Jewish and democratic – giving rights to all its citizens, but extra rights to those who are Jewish.
A referendum which applies to the Jewish population alone and which has a majority rejecting a peace agreement will show the world that Israel does not desire peace, and the country will become more isolated, with even its major allies – including the US – withdrawing their blind support.
BUT THIS is all based on assumptions that the present leadership is actually moving ahead to negotiate a deal with the Palestinians. There is absolutely nothing which would indicate that this is going to happen under Netanyahu. On the contrary, the current government does almost everything possible to prevent such negotiations. It seems to think that living in a world of sound bites and headlines, an occasional comment to the effect that the government wants peace and is prepared to negotiate is sufficient.
The government’s efforts to ensure continued US support in exchange for a three-month extension of the settlement freeze are farcical, and actually put the US to shame for being prepared to even consider such a deal. Since the end of the previous nine-month freeze just two months ago, settlement activity has been going ahead full speed. An additional three months would pass by quicker than the amount of time it is taking to negotiate the deal. And once the three months were over, everything would return to normal for the settlers and they would continue creating even more facts on the ground – facts which have already made it almost impossible to implement a future peace agreement along the classic lines of a two-state solution.
But at the end of the day it may not be such a bad thing to have a referendum. It may indeed be a risk for those who wish to move ahead with a peace agreement, but the issue is so critical that it requires a majority of the country’s population to ensure that anti-peace groups are unable to use the argument of democracy against those who would implement it.
Had a referendum taken place immediately prior to the Gaza disengagement, which would have almost certainly resulted in a convincing majority, it would have knocked the stuffing out of much of the anti-government demonstrations. How much more so for a withdrawal from the West Bank, which will involve the forced evacuation of many more settlers, and which will almost certainly bring a greater level of opposition and violence. Their opposition would be significantly weakened, both numerically and morally, if it was absolutely clear that the majority had voted in favor.
If the majority were to vote against an agreement, we would no longer have any moral right or justification to argue that we are a peace-loving society and that the blame for the ongoing conflict is all on the Palestinians. It would indeed be a grave responsibility for the country’s citizens, as it would be in their hands to prove, once and for all, whether the abstract concept of peace could be translated into reality.
THE HOLDING of a referendum does raise serious questions for a democracy. What is the role of elected politicians if, at the end of the day, they have to put the critical issues back into the hands of the people? Israel is by no means the only country which does not hold referenda, arguing that elections are the true referenda and that the country’s population has the right to change the government if it is dissatisfied with its policies. In the UK, for example, there has only been one referendum, in 1970, when citizens were asked to confirm their government’s decision to join the European Community.
But equally, there are moments in a country’s history when the issues at stake are so critical that it requires the assent of the people at large. A final peace agreement with our Palestinian neighbors which would involve major concessions (on both sides) is surely such a moment. On the Left of the political map, we should ensure that such a referendum will be winnable, that it will have a huge majority, rather than automatically oppose it as an anti-peace move. That way, we would ensure that the implementation of a peace agreement will have the necessary legitimacy and will marginalize all those who try to prevent it from happening.

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.