Ask the people

Are referendums really as bad as critics would have us believe? The dispute over the use of referendums is deeply connected to one’s view of the role of parliament.

Knesset speeches 150 (photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Knesset speeches 150
(photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Critics of referendums typically argue that their use undermines government institutions.
“If referendums are such a good thing, why bother maintaining other democratic institutions such as elections and a legislature?” ask Israel Democracy fellows Dana Blander and Gideon Rahat in their 2000 policy paper “Referendum: Myth and Reality.”
On Sunday the cabinet voted in favor of precisely such a referendum – on a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.
In 2010, the Knesset voted in a huge 66-33 majority to require a public referendum on any two-state solution with the Palestinians that would have Israel give up sovereign territory – including on the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem, but not on the West Bank.
On Sunday, the cabinet voted to turn this legislation into a basic law, which would make it impossible for the Supreme Court to shoot down the legislation.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On, seemingly taking a cue from Blander and Rahat, attacked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for supporting a bill that “pushes the responsibility [for decision-making] onto the people, while avoiding personal responsibility.”
But are referendums really as bad as critics would have us believe? The dispute over the use of referendums is deeply connected to one’s view of the role of parliament. If you view the role of MK as serving as the voting public’s messenger with an obligation to faithfully represent his or her constituents’ interests, then you are likely to be more open to the idea of a referendum.
As coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) – who is a strong supporter of holding a referendum on any future territorial concession to the Palestinians – noted, the cabinet vote would help “prevent the buying of votes to squeeze through controversial decisions.”
Levin might have been referring to deals such as the one struck between the Rabin government and MKs Gonen Segev and Alex Goldfarb, who defected from the right-wing Tzomet party to Labor in exchange for ministerial posts, and who later provided the needed votes to enable the passage of Oslo II in October 1995 by a one-MK majority.
To this day opponents of Oslo recall cynically how the second stage of the accord was passed thanks to a Mitsubishi, a reference to the luxury Japanese sedan given to Goldfarb as deputy housing minister.
Supporters of referendums also tend to view the people of Israel as a collective that shares common principles and values and not just as a group of individuals in pursuit of liberty. Democracy is seen as a system of government that is supposed to reflect the will of the people and not principally to negotiate differences and make compromises among competing interests.
Religious Zionists like Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett tend to support referendums because they believe the majority of the people of Israel are, for the most part, with them. The Jewish people share the aspiration to return to the whole Land of Israel and create an autonomous state.
However, by calling for a referendum, politicians and Israelis on the Right should prepare themselves for the possibility that a majority of Israelis – including Israel’s Arab population who make up a fifth of the population and who must also be given the right to vote in the referendum – will vote in favor of territorial concessions.
The risk that a referendum on territorial concessions to the Palestinians might undermine or weaken our parliament – as critics claim – seems worth taking for a number of reasons.
More than any other issue, the question of the territories is potentially the most divisive of all. This is not just because so much blood has been spilled over the years in connection with this land. Convictions are particularly strong on both sides of the argument.
Even a referendum that of necessity would be worded simplistically with a “yes” or “no” answer that ignores the nuances of the issue would add much-needed legitimacy to any decision that is made.
Opposition to the Oslo Accords or the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria was fueled in large part by the justifiable perception that less-than-honest political maneuvering and narrowly won votes were behind their passage in the Knesset.
To prevent the weakening of our parliament, referendums should be used only in extraordinary situations. The decision whether to cede territories to Palestinians within the framework of a peace agreement is one of those situations.