Editorial: Bring it to the people

Netanyahu declares during a tour of Ashkelon and Sderot this week that he would “bring to the people” any peace deal reached with the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu Headshot 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
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 stability.
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 of Jerusalem.
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 to power.
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 reason.
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 personally disagree.
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.”