Popular Referendum Could Increase Chances for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal

A referendum won by a clear margin would provide legitimacy for a peace agreement and might conceivably mitigate some of the phenomena we witnessed before Rabin was murdered following the Oslo Accord.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

A recent poll conducted by Haaretz shows that if a referendum was conducted about a peace agreement presented by Israel’s government, the results would be as follows: Thirty-nine percent of Israelis said they would vote in favor; 16 percent think they would vote in favor; 20 percent are sure they would vote against and 20 percent are not sure.

This means that in most likelihood such a referendum would pass.

Currently the demand to put any withdrawal from the West Bank to a referendum is primarily sponsored by Israel’s right, including Naftali Bennett’s national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party. Most liberal commentators are against this motion, and some of them are well-founded. Nevertheless their objection to such a referendum is shortsighted for a number of reasons.

Law Professor Aeyal Gross has put the most powerful objection succinctly, claiming that such a referendum would be asking the wrong people for its agreement.

He points out correctly that the question of whether they want to be part of Great Britain will be put to the Scots, not to the British as a whole; and that the Northern Irish decided the fate of Northern Ireland.

Therefore, as Gross points out, the people who should really be asked whether they want to be part of Israel or have a state of their own are the Palestinians, not the Israelis.

I completely agree with Gross. Personally I do not think that it is up to Israelis to determine the status of the West Bank, because they are not part of Israel. And his point that the Palestinians rather than Israelis should determine their fate reflects the human rights paradigm correctly and is supported by international law.

Nevertheless I think that a referendum on withdrawal from the West Bank is advisable on purely pragmatic grounds. The chasms in Israeli society are very deep indeed.

A peace agreement with the Palestinians will strain this society’s cohesiveness to the breaking point. It might therefore be advisable that such a peace agreement be backed by the Israeli people. A referendum won by a clear margin would certainly provide such legitimacy for a peace agreement and might conceivably mitigate some of the phenomena we witnessed from 1993 to 1995 when Rabin was murdered.

First and foremost it is to be expected that if indeed an agreement with the Palestinians is reached – and this is a big “if” – it will cause an enormous upheaval in Israeli society. We should remember that when Rabin signed the Oslo accords, huge demonstrations were staged, posters with Rabin in Nazi uniform were carried, and national-religious rabbis ruled that Rabin’s legal status was that of a ‘Mosser’, of a man who delivers Jews to gentile jurisdiction. As a result it seemed legitimate to kill Rabin, which, as we know, turned into a terrible reality.

It is difficult to predict which form protests against a peace agreement with the Palestinians will take this time, but we can be sure that the ideological right will not give in meekly. We can only hope that they will refrain from violence this time, and that they would respect a democratic decision, but the likelihood is that at least the right’s extreme fringes won’t do so.

In addition any such agreement would require dismantling a certain amount of settlements, and to remove many thousands of settlers from their homes. The withdrawal from the Gaza strip was a huge trauma for the settlers who were uprooted, and it was an event that was very difficult for most Israelis.
Furthermore, even though the bill to demand a referendum about any withdrawal from the territories is sponsored by the right, such a referendum would make it much more difficult for Israel’s right to call such a peace agreement, if reached, illegitimate. One claim of the right against Rabin was that he didn’t have a “Jewish majority” for the Oslo agreements, because Rabin’s government only had a parliamentary majority through the support of the Knesset’s Arab parties.

Nevermind that this argument was despicable and showed the extent to which Israel’s right does not perceive Israel’s Arab citizens as having equal rights. The fact is that this accusation against Rabin played a strong role in Israeli discourse. It contributed to the atmosphere that painted Israel’s left as anti-Israel and Rabin as a traitor. And while a clear decision of the people might not prevent Israel’s radical right from resorting to potentially violent protest against a peace agreement, it might create more legitimacy for cracking down on illegal forms of resistance against it.

Finally: let us assume that Netanyahu has indeed made the historic decision to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Personally I have doubts that he has indeed reached this point, and that he is willing to walk the extra mile required to reach peace, but I will assume for the moment that he has.

In this case Netanyahu is in very dire straits politically. His own party, the Likud, has turned into an extreme right-wing party for all intents and purposes, and most of its MKs are actually opposed to the two state solution. He is in a similar situation as Ariel Sharon was when he decided to withdraw from the Gaza strip, and couldn’t get a majority for this decision in the Likud. Sharon solved the problem by creating Kadima, and taking the moderates of the Likud with him to move ahead with the disengagement from Gaza.

Netanyahu seems not to have this option. There are not enough moderates in the Likud for him to initiate such a move, and it is difficult to see parliamentarians from what other parties he could mobilize for creating a new party platform of his own. Those on his right would be of no use to him, as they oppose withdrawal from the West Bank, and those on his left are unlikely to accept his leadership. It therefore seems that Netanyahu will need to be able to claim that he gains his legitimacy for a peace agreement from the people itself, and that the majority of Israelis support it.

In an ideal world Palestinians rather than Israelis would decide Palestinians’ fate. But in an ideal world, Israel would not have built settlements in the West Bank to begin with. Furthermore in an ideal world the second Intifada would not have happened, and Mahmoud Abbas would have signed a peace deal with Israel years ago.

But we do not live in an ideal world. Israel is torn, its citizenry is divided, and the settler’s political power is considerable. Under these circumstances a popular referendum might increase the slim chances that the elusive solution of the Israel/Palestine conflict will come to an end in the foreseeable future.

Anti-Rabin protest from 1990s, featuring sign depicting him as an Arab and calling him "the liar."Credit: GPO

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