A Referendum Is No Substitute for Leadership

True leadership is the ability to guide a group when the change is hard or occurs in uncertain conditions; the political leadership in Israel is not this type.

Oved Yehezkel
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Oved Yehezkel

Winston Churchill once said that, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." The practice of democracy rests on the idea of representation through parliament and government, a body chosen by the people and authorized to make decisions.

A referendum veers from the normal route of the democratic decision-making process. At the same time, it is accepted and legitimate, as long as it is used carefully and in moderation. Our conflict with the Arab world and the Palestinians is long and complicated, and deeply rooted in the heart of every Jew and Israeli. It's a conflict that began with the rise of the Zionist idea more than a century ago and has stayed with us since.

In many respects, the conflict is not just a central issue for the Israeli public, but rather defines its identity within society. An Israeli's place on the right or left of the political map is determined by his stand on the conflict. In practice, one can determine his place on the spectrum (albeit imperfectly) based on the individual's position on the conflict, his socioeconomic and ethnic identity, and his attachment to the Jewish religion.

In order to manage and end the conflict, it is vital to have a determined, brave and responsible leadership, which is prepared to navigate a difficult process involving changing global priorities. It is vital to have a leadership that will manage opposition, even if it requires sacrificing a lot for its sake. Even if that leadership will need to risk almost everything - including many partners and supporters - to agree to live in isolation: that same loneliness at the top that all strong leaders know.

It needs to be a leadership that will agree to risk political survival in order to lead. Leadership is the ability to guide a group, society or people to great and substantial changes, particularly when the change is hard or occurs in uncertain conditions.

The political leadership in Israel is not this type. It focuses on survival, is busy every day ensuring its existence, and all its deeds are done for the purpose of staying alive. It is paralyzed with fear, lest a confrontation bring it to the end of the line. Its vision is foggy and full of contradictions.

The prime minister is in an impossible situation. His leadership is not obvious, even within his own party, and his parliamentary backing is less than a sixth of the Knesset. The coalition he assembled is divided, and there is certainly no consensus within it on the diplomatic issue. This combination of the lack of a brave, determined leadership together with an inability to govern and be decisive, endangers the existence of the Zionist enterprise and Israel's ability to survive any and all conditions.

The diplomatic process imposed by the Americans on the two sides is the result of international interests that aren't necessarily tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. seeks stability in the region and to create an international coalition in order to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions and weaken the radical Islamist axis in the Middle East.

Israel and the Palestinians have a clear interest in lowering the flame, given the problematic condition that their leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are in. Because of this the ones running the negotiations are the outer circle: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni; and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. The central figures - U.S. President Barack Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas - are on hold. That's not the way to solve such a complex conflict.

The prime minister knows he's not prepared to pay the price for heading the real debate. So he raises the referendum idea and diverts the debate from the question of the conflict to the, irrelevant, edge. It's like a man buying a lottery ticket and giving the winnings to his children before the draw. Why discuss a referendum before the process has even begun? There are mountains to climb and many questions to be asked before a sterile debate on the end of the process.

It's a deliberate diversion to avoid making fateful decisions. History is full of struggles, diplomatic processes and paradigm-breaking wars. History shows what happened to these kinds of conflicts in other countries when they took place in the street. When they managed to change society’s identity, a leadership was present that dealt with the opposition and didn't run from it. Leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, David Ben-Gurion and Margaret Thatcher were needed to lead these processes.

A referendum is no substitute for leadership. Transferring the decision to the street is highly dangerous and borders on national irresponsibility. Does anyone really believe one can ask a divided and torn Israel to decide on such a sensitive issue, which runs like a silken thread through the Israeli street, without leading to verbal violence, perhaps even bloodshed? Does political survival justify this price? Have we already forgotten the scenes from the 2005 disengagement and the commotion on the Golan? Does anyone think that questions such as the future of Jerusalem or evacuating the settlements will be determined in the street?

A referendum is premature under current conditions. A serious, measured and responsible discourse must come first. A state leader who knows how to run such a discourse and create a consensus in the direction he seeks, must run that discourse. It's a tough and complicated job, bordering on the impossible, but it is necessary.

The writer was cabinet secretary under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The Knesset in Jerusalem: Returning for its winter session.Credit: Daniel Bar-On