Legitimizing Middle East Peace Through Referendum

Both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples should bring any peace deal negotiated by their leaders to national vote - while the U.S. must act as an impartial broker.

I was at the White House twenty years ago today when the Oslo Accords were signed. The success of the Norwegian negotiators gave hope to millions of Israelis and Palestinians that peace would finally prevail. Tragically, there has been no real progress since 1993 and many setbacks, but the new round of talks being brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is encouraging.

After several members of The Elders met in July with John Kerry and later with key Palestinian leaders, we were cautiously optimistic but had questions about whether the U.S. and parties to the talks are willing to make the hard decisions and pay the political price. Will Israel give up settlements in Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem? Will Palestinians accept compensation in lieu of returning to Israel? Will the U.S. be an honest broker instead of an advocate for Israel? Will Palestinian factions be encouraged to unite and have elections?

Understandably cautious negotiators cannot answer these questions by making final decisions on their own volition, but submission of an agreement to their own people in a referendum will make it easier for them to make necessary concessions. We observed this in our previous meetings with Hamas leaders, who affirmed publicly that they would accept an agreement negotiated by the PLO leader, provided their people then approved it in a free and fair vote. It is encouraging that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas promise to submit any agreement reached to a popular vote. I am confident that both sides would approve a balanced peace agreement.

Both Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu need a referendum if they are to have the flexibility and legitimacy required to conclude a potential agreement. Prime Minister Netanyahu is in a minority in his own conservative coalition by agreeing to peace talks, with the understanding that territorial boundaries will have to be based on the 1967 borders. President Abbas is in a minority within the Palestinian leadership in choosing to enter peace talks while Israeli settlement construction, illegal under international law, has continued at an accelerated rate.

Another important factor is that Secretary Kerry has made a crucially important move by supporting the Arab Peace Initiative – proposed by then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the 22-member Arab League in 2002 and later by the other 35 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, including Iran. The current Arab Peace Initiative offers a normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal from territories conquered in 1967, modified by minor negotiated land swaps.

For Israel, this represents at least a promise of peace and normal commercial relations with the nations that have endorsed it. Polls show that the basic provisions of the Arab proposal are not well known among the Israeli population, but they reveal that, once informed of its principles, a majority of Israelis would welcome an agreement according to its terms. This could provide encouragement to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spoke about the need for a deal to be subjected to the people’s assent. In his words, “peace with our neighbors requires peace among ourselves, and that is achieved through a referendum.”

Past leaders of Israel have established valuable precedents towards an eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians – even those who may not have been expected to do so, such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Olmert, and even Ariel Sharon. When I brokered the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978, I felt that the Israeli delegation on the whole was more willing to agree to a deal than was Prime Minister Menachem Begin. I believe it was a phone call to Ariel Sharon, then a powerful right-wing figure in his government, that convinced Begin to accept the peace proposal.

There are parallels with today’s situation. Many Israeli leaders are known to be more amenable to peace talks than Netanyahu himself, yet he knows that peace with the Palestinians based on two sovereign states living together in peace is essential to preserving the Jewish and democratic character of Israel. History teaches us that great leaders can demonstrate flexibility and make the necessary compromises when peace is recognized as a necessity by the people they govern.

Peace deals were possible in 1978 and 1993. They still are today, but time is running out and hard decisions need to be made very soon. Like 35 years ago, the United States’ role as an honest, impartial broker will be a key to the success of the current talks. Approval of a deal in referenda would ensure popular ownership on both sides as well as international support – and would go far to making best use of the precious time that is left.

Jimmy Carter is a former U.S. President and a member of The Elders (www.theElders.org), a group of independent leaders working for peace, justice and human rights.

This opinion piece is part of a series of articles reflecting on the Oslo Accords, published on The Elders' website.

AP