A referendum could prevent a civil war

The wording of the referendum must be concise and unambiguous and require a clear yes or no answer.

Netanyahu at Knesset swear in 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu at Knesset swear in 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The idea of holding a referendum, which has slowly been poking its head up as the political negotiations process gets back on track, conflicts with the guiding principles of our government, which is a parliamentary democracy.
In a parliamentary democracy, the ultimate referendum is held once every four years, in the form of elections for Knesset. In the interim period between elections, the Knesset is the exclusive representative of the government, unless it is lawfully dissolved. Otherwise, in a parliamentary democracy the government operates according to the will of the Knesset.
The government does not have the right, but the duty to govern. As a result, a referendum can weaken the Knesset and government’s power and can create a situation in which its legitimacy is contingent on a referendum.
In practice, the frequent use of this tool for every issue, as occurs in Switzerland, undermines the elected officials’ ability to fulfill their roles.
Since the Oslo Accords were signed, Israeli governments have sought to follow this approach in which a call for a referendum would be necessary when making decisions with potentially fatal consequences. As of today, a referendum has never actually been carried out.
I personally am not opposed a priori to carrying out a referendum, but I think in a parliamentary government it belongs in a constitution. In the absence of a constitution, it should be treated as part of the Basic Law, which requires the support of at least 61 Knesset Members to pass.
This Basic Law should require that a referendum be carried out only after the Knesset has voted to hold one and not as a substitute for such a vote. The law should also prescribe under which circumstances and in what way a referendum could be called.
This Basic Law should determine that any agreement reached by a government – whether it be a permanent or an interim order, a relinquishing of sovereignty or a territorial exchange – needs to be presented as one entity to Israeli citizens, who will be asked to vote for or against a single question.
Any other question regarding the details of the arrangement should be dealt with separately, since critics will rightly ask who formulated the question and who financed the propaganda about the referendum.
The wording of the referendum must be concise and unambiguous and require a clear yes or no answer.
The current government needs to immediately carry out a referendum so that a stable coalition would be able to carry out negotiations with the Palestinians.
In addition to these constraints, we must make sure that the Referendum Law not be interpreted by other countries, or among ourselves, as a political stunt designed to bring about a quick solution or to mean that we are negotiating in bad faith. Preparing legislation in which a referendum would be incorporated into the Basic Law is a necessary step that would demonstrate commitment and reliability.
Alternatively, if the right to hold a referendum is not included in the Basic Law, and is instead used ad hoc, this may show off a specific politician’s parliamentary dexterity, but would be undemocratic. Unfortunately, in the past there have been cases where this legislation was used cynically, but this is a double-edged sword that in the end only harms democracy.
Despite my reservations about a parliamentary democracy holding a referendum, I believe this act is legitimate if it is only used in cases in which there are serious disagreements on issues in Israeli society, and the only way to resolve them once and for all is through a referendum.
Because Israeli society comprises groups that are deeply divided ideologically and religiously, a referendum, if used properly, could have a calming effect and even prevent a civil war from breaking out. A referendum could increase the nation’s commitment to abide by a majority decision and guarantee its existence for generations to come.
The author is the former speaker of the Knesset.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.