In 1976, Ariel Sharon served as special adviser to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. His term in office was brief (eight months), but he managed in that time to present Rabin with a far-reaching proposal for changing the country's system of government.
Sharon suggested turning Israel into a state under a presidential-type regime, with direct elections for a prime minister, who would have extensive executive powers and the authority to form a compact government and dismiss ministers. He also suggested that Rabin implement his proposal immediately, and form a new government that would declare a state of emergency, step up preparations ahead of the possible outbreak of war, and embark on a comprehensive settlement campaign.
Thankfully for the State of Israel, the ideas of adviser Sharon were not put into practice; they reflected not only his temperament and concepts concerning democracy, but also his disgust with the functioning of the government to which he was an adviser.
Sharon was privy to the fierce rivalry between Rabin and then-defense minister Shimon Peres, and its serious implications vis-a-vis the good of the country, as well as the weakness of the government, which was based on personal and coalition-based haggling and compromise. Sharon wished for a determined decision-making center of authority, and displayed contempt for the structured political process under the parliamentary system in place in Israel.
Ironically, almost 30 years down the line, Sharon, in the position of prime minister, now finds himself coming to the defense of the appropriate governmental game rules with his consistent rejection of the idea to put the disengagement plan to a referendum.
The Likud Central Committee's decision last Thursday to hold a referendum on the pull-out plan may, indeed, appear at this moment in time to be primarily a declarative move that has no chance of reaching fruition, but it shouldn't be underestimated, and it doesn't make superfluous the need to mention its shortcomings.
Bringing the process of a referendum into the accepted political procedure by means of which national decisions are made in Israel is tantamount to introducing a foreign body into a harmonious ecological environment. A referendum would create absolute chaos in the political system and lead to precedents that would interfere with its performance, going as far as to threaten its very ability to continue to function. Giving the public at large the power to make decisions would undercut the sovereignty of the government and the Knesset and prejudice the role of the parties.
Under the Israeli system, the public leaves the decision-making process up to its representatives, in the Knesset and the government, overseeing them for predetermined periods of time in office, or ruling against them when elections come around. Putting the power to make decisions directly into the hands of the public would completely undermine this ingrained practice, invite demands to repeat it with regard to other disputes, and evoke reservations and arguments concerning the efficiency and appropriateness of the system that will be far more damaging than those that challenge the existing procedure.
In a referendum, the voice of the minority is lost completely, the ability to reach compromises disappears, and the basis of social unity is eroded. A direct approach to the public to make a decision, in a country that has no constitution and in which a referendum is not part of its political tradition, is a recipe for manipulations and firing up the dispute. The results of a referendum depend on its timing, the wording of the question to be decided, the climate under which it is held, and the decision with regard to the majority required. These components are subject to arbitrary decisions by parties with vested interests, whether they be those who are demanding the referendum or those who reject it. Under such circumstances, the results of a referendum are likely to leave in place the dispute that led to the suggestion to hold the national poll itself.
Moreover, a referendum would not insure the state against harm by extremist elements, on both sides of the political divide, that won't accept its outcome. The period in which the campaign for the hearts of the voters will be waged is slated to be impulsive, populist and, more than likely, violent - such that this mechanism of decision does not guarantee a more proper and calm procedure than under the existing system.
In his opposition to a referendum, Sharon, perhaps unwittingly, is strengthening Israeli democracy.
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