Naftali Bennett
Naftali Bennett Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is promoting a bill that would require a referendum on any diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians. This is on top of Economy Minister Naftali Bennett's efforts to turn the existing referendum law into a Basic Law.

The existing law requires a referendum only on conceding territory to which Israeli law has been applied. The territories that meet this criterion are East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and any parts of Israel that might be transferred to the Palestinians under a peace agreement.

In theory, a referendum might sound like a good democratic idea. But the reality is different. It's clear that the motivation behind the current initiative - which Bennett is promoting aggressively, including by threatening to quit the coalition - is to constrain the cabinet and Knesset, and make it harder to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. The significance of turning the existing referendum law into a Basic Law is that the Knesset would be able to repeal it only with a special majority of at least 61 MKs in favor.

The pressure exerted by Bennett - the settlers' representative in the government - to turn the existing law into a Basic Law isn't surprising. However, Netanyahu's proposal to expand the existing law, via a rushed legislative process, so that it would apply to any agreement with the Palestinians is more significant. The prime minister's promotion of this initiative casts doubt over the sincerity of his intentions toward the peace process.

The fact that the proposed referendum would apply only to peace agreements shows that its real goal is to make it harder to ratify any future agreement. Other important decisions that aren't part of Israel's constitutional system are not put to referenda. The decisions to settle in the territories, build settlements there and remain there were never submitted to a referendum so that the people could approve or reject them. Nor were other fateful decisions - like whether to start a war or end one - ever submitted to a referendum, even though such decisions are liable to have grave implications for all Israeli citizens.

Israel's system of government is representative democracy. In this system, the people elect representatives whose most important job is to make difficult decisions on the basis of the mandate they received from the people. Making an exception for critical decisions like signing a peace agreement shows that the prime minister is fleeing responsibility.

Netanyahu must begin and conduct negotiations in the full knowledge that he and the government he heads are authorized to make important decisions on behalf of the nation that, just a few months ago, elected them to lead it.