Holding a referendum

Referendum could provide legitimacy for factors of peace agreement; "broad and unequivocal" support from public needed.

Kerry with Arab League delegation 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kerry with Arab League delegation 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The need to pass a law that requires a referendum before finalizing a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians has received new-found relevance after the Arab League reiterated a 2002 peace initiative that included a softer stance on borders. Meanwhile, a lethal terrorist attack on Tuesday at Tapuach Junction in Samaria was a terrible reminder that hatred and incitement against Israel are still an integral part of Palestinian and Arab worldviews and continue to represent the biggest obstacle to peace.
If anything, the brutal stabbing of Evyatar Borovsky, a father of five from the settlement of Yitzhar, emphasized the sacrifices made over the years by Israeli citizens living in Judea and Samaria – places resonant with historical significance for Jews who settled there with the full support of successive Israeli governments.
On Monday, speaking on behalf of an Arab League delegation to Washington, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem al-Thani restated a peace initiative first floated in 2002, but this time with a new and potentially significant twist.
The Arab League, it seems, is now ready for “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps as part of a two-state solution. Thani’s statement seems to provide Arab League recognition for a Jewish state that includes major settlement blocs. The Arab League announcement came on the same day that coalition members debated the merits of requiring a referendum before finalizing a two-state solution with the Palestinians. A day later, Borovsky was stabbed to death as he waited for a bus.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman oppose in principle the idea of a referendum (though Liberman said he would support one if the coalition does). Both argued that holding a referendum weakened the government’s authority by transferring the decision-making process to the people.
“It’s the government’s job to make decisions,” stated Livni.
Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, meanwhile, argued that the concept of a referendum was inherently undemocratic and was an attempt to torpedo chances for peace.
“The selectiveness [in referendum topics] speaks for itself,” said Yacimovich.
There is no precedent in Israel for a referendum of any kind nor is there a Basic Law that would govern how a referendum should be held. However, the idea has been raised from time to time, usually in connection with territorial compromises.
In his losing campaign for prime minister against Binyamin Netanyahu after the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres promised that he would put any final peace agreement with the Palestinians to a referendum. Peres hoped that such a move would sway voters who, faced with suicide bombings planned and executed by Hamas that claimed dozens of innocent Israeli lives in the months leading up to the 1996 elections, were becoming increasingly skeptical of the Oslo Accords.
Rabin had said that he would call a referendum before an agreement was signed with Syria on a pullout from the strategic Golan Heights. In 1999, Ehud Barak’s One Israel party, a short-lived moniker for the Labor party, included a referendum on its platform.
But memories are short. In 2010 when Netanyahu came out in favor of a referendum bill and this week when the prime minister once again expressed his support for the motion, he was criticized on the Left for attempting to block chances of a peace plan.
It is highly unlikely that the new Arab League peace initiative will lead to substantive and direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Too many obstacles stand in the way, not the least of which are the unceasing incitement in schools and in official Palestinian media against Israel and Israelis and the split in leadership between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank.
But if and when a peace agreement is formulated, it can only be implemented if it receives broad and unequivocal support from Israelis. Ariel Sharon’s refusal to hold a referendum before pulling out of Gaza and dismantling the Jewish settlements there and in northern Samaria probably exacerbated tensions that threatened to rip Israeli society apart.
Only a referendum could provide the legitimacy for the implementation of territorial compromises and other aspects of a future peace agreement with the Palestinians, provided, of course, the referendum’s results were based on a high turnout and a clear majority. No democratically elected government could ever command the sort of broad support needed for such a fateful decision.