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If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decides to hold a national referendum on the disengagement plan, as right-wing activists are demanding, the plan would fail to win the support of a majority of voters, new research conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem indicates.

The research, conducted by Dr. Avital Moshinsky as part of a doctoral thesis, shows that voters in national plebiscites show a distinct preference for the status quo.

In a study of 26 national referendums held in 26 democratic countries, Moshinsky found that when a public vote was held to approve existing policy, it won between 80 percent and 85 percent of the votes. However, in cases in which a change in policy was up for decision, the results show that the approval rate was about 50 percent or lower.

The 50-percent rate holds true even if the government is sure of its chances of gaining approval of its policy via the referendum process, Moshinsky found.

That's because when people are required to make important decisions regarding changes in an existing situation, they tend to give greater weight to possible losses than potential gains, she found.

A Haaretz-Dialogue poll from mid-January showed that 59 percent of the population, particularly voters from the left and center, supports the disengagement plan.

When asked about a national referendum on the pullout plan, 38 percent of respondents said they wanted a referendum before the disengagement, while the same amount said they wanted pullout preparations to continue.

But pressure for a referendum is mounting from the right. On Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters opposed to the plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank held a rally near the Knesset and called for the pullout to be put to a vote.

"We demand a referendum; let the nation decide," Likud rebel leader Uzi Landau told the crowd. "One can support the disengagement or be against it, but we must agree on the rules of the democratic game."

Sharon, who was burned in a party referendum last year, has repeatedly rejected requests to hold a national plebiscite. In the Likud poll, anti-disengagement activists held a door-to-door campaign to persuade Likud members to vote against the plan, which was trounced in the vote.

A spokesman from the Prime Minister's Office said in response to the Haaretz survey data last month that Sharon remained adamantly opposed to a referendum because he believes it will only further the division among the people and lead to violence.

Perhaps he intuits what Moshinsky found in a laboratory experiment conducted as part of her research, which was done in affiliation with the psychology department and the Hebrew University's Center for Rationality and Interactive Decision Theory.

In one test, two groups chose diametrically opposite positions, favoring the one that was presented as the status quo. One group was asked whether to maintain restrictions on advertising alcoholic drinks on television, and a majority favored the limitations. The second group was asked whether to institute the restrictions, and the majority chose to continue with the status quo of unrestricted advertising.