Referendum – a vital component of peace

The willingness of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make concessions will increase if they know that these concessions will be brought before the public prior to ratification.

Obvious to any scholar, yet not to the Israeli government, is the fact that the current status quo poses a threat to Israel. The country’s clock is ticking, and counting not decades or even years, but months and weeks. At times it seems as if the prime minister’s separatist stance has led the government and Israel into a cul-de-sac. Perhaps worse – the lack of policy from a government incapable of making hard choices and adrift in turbulent waters confronts Israel with a strategic, and even existential, threat.
Various well-meaning politicians, philosophers, experts and former senior officials attempt to fill the political void with political initiatives – from an immediate settlement to a long-term interim agreement, and from annexing the territories to an immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood. Every initiative has its merits. Before them all stands a reluctant government that hides behind the current processes taking root in the entire Arab world; for what is the purpose of settling with leaders who will soon be overthrown? Does a peace agreement with a Palestinian technocratic government have any validity when that government includes an Osama bin Laden-supporting Hamas that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist? So the Israeli government can now blame others for its inaction; Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, the masses at Tahrir square and so on.
An old proverb states that the work of the righteous is done at the hands of others. These others, however, are the international community; the UN and Israel’s former friends, which, lacking a serious Israeli initiative, will eventually dictate the characteristics of the future agreement and impose it on the country arbitrarily.
It is likely that Israel’s existential security concerns will not be their top priority.
HOW CAN this predicament be solved? How can a real political initiative be presented, and the associated risks sidestepped at the same time? How can the world be convinced of Israel’s peaceful intentions while the risks and pitfalls of the current regional landscape are avoided? The answer to all of the above is a referendum.
For one thing, a referendum can promote a peace agreement. Why? Because the willingness of both parties to make concessions will increase if decision-makers know that these concessions will be brought before the public prior to ratification.
Furthermore, a referendum is necessary due to the reality on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and to past experience with regional processes. Israel must demand that any agreement enjoy the backing of a Palestinian popular majority in a referendum, and so be an agreement between peoples, not between temporary leaders. The people of Israel must know that a settlement which involves risky territorial concessions and potential security threats is being made with the entire Palestinian people or, at the very least, the majority of it.
As for the Palestinian arena, the hard reality is that no Palestinian leader (and certainly not Mahmoud Abbas) is capable of enforcing an agreement with Israel – with all its inherent obligations – on the Palestinian population without the legitimacy of being backed by a referendum. A referendum should be open to all Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
If certain political movements or organizations choose to boycott the referendum, this will not dent its obligatory nature. The Palestinians may elect to include or exclude the Palestinian Diaspora. If the Palestinian public rejects the agreement, then the true face of Palestinian society will be exposed.
A referendum is necessary on the Israeli side as well.
The current situation in the West Bank, where a handful of settlers systematically break the law and challenge the authority of the state and the IDF while preparing to forcefully resist, perhaps with firearms, any decision to evict them makes it impossible for any Israeli government to implement a peace settlement with the Palestinians without the moral backing of a referendum, especially if it includes withdrawing from vast territories in the West Bank. The settlers will not accept the implications of a peace agreement without such a referendum. The IDF will be unable to implement the agreement and force it on violent extremists without the legitimacy of a referendum, and the government will not be able to ratify a future peace agreement without a referendum.
A referendum is therefore a vital necessity in any future peace agreement, despite its sectoral limitations and the difficulties involved. It must be a cornerstone of any initiative or plan to settle the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
The writer is founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.