The referendum law’s problems

President Obama must heed this wake-up call and begin treating Netanyahu’s government as the adversary of peace it truly is.

View of settlement. [Illustrative] (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
View of settlement. [Illustrative]
Unless you’re an ardent follower of Israeli politics, you probably didn’t hear the door as it silently shut and locked on the “peace process” on March 12. On that fateful day, all 68 members of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government passed a virtually irreversible Basic Law enshrining a requirement for popular referendum on any future concession of sovereign Israeli land.
While this measure does not apply to the occupied West Bank itself, it would, however, force a national vote on land swaps inside the Green Line – central to the Obama administration’s peace proposals – as well as any attempt to cede part or all of east Jerusalem, perhaps chief among the Palestinians’ demands for a final agreement.
Yet this seemingly permanent obstacle to peace, far more detrimental than any single dramatic flare-up of violence, was erected without much fanfare. Western press coverage of the referendum law has been dismally scant, conveniently overshadowed by a sudden exchange of fire with the Gaza strip and the concurrent adoption of another controversial piece of legislation, the ultra-Orthodox draft law.
In essence, the Israeli government legally stripped itself of its own power to cut a deal, effectively tying its figurative hands behind its back in case the Palestinians decide they want to shake. The law’s hawkish architects in the Knesset shrewdly recognized that a mandated referendum all but guarantees the map will remain unchanged for years to come. Israel’s continual shift to the political Right – fueled by its mounting international isolation – combined with its rapidly shifting demographic makeup, namely exponential growth among the country’s concession-wary ultra-Orthodox population, makes an already extremely difficult vote improbable, if not impossible. As we’re witnessing in Scotland in the run-up to this year’s referendum on independence from Britain, even supposedly populist measures can pose a challenge at the polls.
And although Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has also pledged to send any deal to referendum across the territories, the implications for peace are not nearly as grave. Compared to Israel’s Kevlar-fortified referendum law, Abbas’s pledge is little more than an open-ended promise. More importantly, any deal that Abbas himself would agree to would likely be accepted by a vast majority of Palestinians, who have everything to gain from an agreement.
All the while, US Secretary of State John Kerry, partly distracted by the looming referendum in Crimea, kept silent as the last shreds of hope for a peace deal (and his legacy as peacemaker) quietly burned to ashes. Unlike their previous violations of good faith during sensitive negotiations, such as announcements of settlement expansions, Netanyahu and his allies knew that by cloaking this measure in the rhetoric of democratic romanticism this most flagrant rebuke to the peace process was unlikely to be publicly denounced by the US, a true testament to their political cunning.
Upon approval of the law, member of Knesset Moshe Feiglin feigned acquiescence in saying, “I believe the entire Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, and I will be very sad if the nation votes to divide the land, but at least then it will be a legitimate vote, because the people are the sovereign in a democracy.” Feiglin seems unperturbed, however, that the people are not afforded the same level of democratic oversight in deciding matters of settlement growth in the occupied territories, an issue no less consequential to the survival of the state of Israel.
Unfortunately, Kerry’s silence in the face of Israel’s defiant obstructionism only gives credence to the growing perception that, as Ali Jarbawi of Birzeit University asserted in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, the US is an unfair mediator in the conflict. As new “facts on the ground” continue to be imposed by Israel and the prospects for peace are diminished, the US also loses its ability to project power and influence in the region and, ultimately, its credibility as the self-elected guardian of global order. President Obama must heed this wake-up call and begin treating Netanyahu’s government as the adversary of peace it truly is.
The author is a former human rights worker in Israel.