Leftist Israeli MKs Want a Two-state Referendum. They Should Learn From U.K.’s Mistake

The Zionist Union's fantasy of a vote on the two-state solution is a foolish bid to win an election without showing leadership.

Gershom Gorenberg
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A "leave" supporter holds a Union flag following the result of the EU referendum, outside Downing Street in London, June 24, 2016.
A "leave" supporter holds a Union flag following the result of the EU referendum, outside Downing Street in London, June 24, 2016. Credit: Neil Hall/Reuters
Gershom Gorenberg

Within hours after British polls closed on the Brexit vote, Google reported a sudden spike in searches for "What is the EU?" The people made their voice heard - and then lots of them told Google that they lacked the most basic information on the issue on which they voted. 

I'd like to call this to the attention of Zionist Union MK Eitan Broshi, who has been promoting the idea of holding a referendum here on whether Israel should aim for a two-state or a one-state solution, and to the attention of Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, who supports the proposal. If you actually manage to arrange for the entire Israeli electorate to vote on that question, I predict that on the morning after, Google will report a flood of searches such as, "What is the one-state solution?" and, "What is the Green Line?" That's the implication of the latest Peace Index poll results, released this week. The poll shows that much of the Israeli public, like much of the British public, is stunningly clueless about the most important issue facing their country. And if the decision to hold a referendum in Britain showed poor political leadership by the Conservatives, the idea of a referendum here is a fantasy of the center-left about how to win an election without any leadership at all.

Broshi has been pushing the referendum proposal for months. In an article he published in February, he argued that the "present extreme right-wing government ... does not represent the position of a large majority of the people." 

Then, on June 23, Britain voted. In contrast to the decision that Broshi wants to put to the people here, which is between two concepts, the choice in the U.K. was about whether to take a specific, concrete step: activating the escape clause for leaving the European Union. The Leave forces showed that exploiting fear, nativism, nationalism and - perhaps most of all - ignorance could create a majority for a self-destructive national decision.

So, looking upon that disaster, Broshi renewed his call for a referendum on two states versus one. In an article last week, he even cited the Brexit vote as a model. Herzog concurred. "I don't think the [Knesset] elections necessarily reflected the [public's] thinking on this issue," he told Army Radio. "Let the people decide." 

Meanwhile the Peace Index - a long-running monthly poll - decided to check not just what the public thinks, but also what it knows. In interviews conducted last week, 58 percent of respondents favored conducting peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. That indeed is a majority. But just 20 percent said they expected that such talks will lead to peace "in the coming years." 

Now imagine a referendum in which the public is asked to vote for two states, but in the absence of a concrete, negotiated agreement on how to get there. Would support be closer to 58 percent or to 20 percent? I’m betting on the latter. 

The poll also tested respondents' knowledge of some of the basic facts essential to an informed choice. Asked to choose between four estimates of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, 24 percent chose the lowest - a quarter to a half million. Another 36 percent guessed 1-2 million. 

Just 10 percent answered 2-3 million. The best real-world estimates put the Palestinian population at the high end of that range. Over a quarter of the respondents said they didn't know, and 3 percent guessed too high. That is, a large majority of Israelis drastically underestimate how many Palestinians would join the Israeli electorate in the one-state scenario. If they bother to think about it, they also underestimate the impact this would have on the makeup of our parliament - even if somehow we could leave Gaza out of this.

Then there's the Green Line, the baseline for any two-state negotiations. Asked if it is the 1949 armistice line between Israel and its neighbors, 15 percent were sure it was, and another 33 percent leaned that way. That is, less than half picked the right answer. Next time the pollster might ask whether the Green Line is the dividing line for Israeli legal purposes between sovereign Israel and territory under military rule, except in Jerusalem and the Golan. It is, but chances are that even fewer people know this.

This is depressing, but not surprising. The government erased the Green Line from Israeli maps in 1967. In the early 1990s, when the idea of two states for two peoples became mainstream, most Israeli adults still had a map engraved in their minds that showed where Israel stopped and the West Bank began. Today, most Israeli voters grew up with maps showing the West Bank as part of Israel. But most have not seen the conditions there in decades, if ever. 

Perhaps inside the echo chamber of Zionist Union politics it's obvious that everyone knows what a catastrophe it will be to continue the occupation until there's no choice but a single, binational state. Rather than fantasizing about redemption by referendum, the left and center-left should be working on an intensive campaign to get basic information into the consciousness of a much wider public. 

Beyond that, Zionist Union might learn something from its British counterpart, the Labour party. Following the Brexit referendum and Labour’s failure to get its pro-Remain position across to its erstwhile voters, the party's MPs recognized the pressing need for a new leader and voted no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. Zionist Union can save much time and grief if it skips the referendum and goes straight to the revolt. Corbyn and Herzog have little in common but this: Both are incapable of convincing voters that they have the message and the ability to lead their countries on a better path. And in a functioning democracy, the message isn't enough unless the voters trust the messenger. 

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG

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