Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is initiating a new law that will require a national referendum over any peace agreement with the Palestinians as Haaretz reported Monday. Presently, such a referendum is required to approve an agreement that includes giving up territory that is under Israel's legal and administrative authority - in other words, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and areas within the Green Line.
If the law Netanyahu is backing requires approval from a referendum for any agreement with the Palestinians, then he is broadening the requirement for a referendum and will require it also for territories in the West Bank where Israeli law has never been applied.
There are those who claim that the initiative to hold a referendum as a condition for an agreement with the Palestinians is driven by the refusal to make peace. And there are those of the opinion that a referendum could actually grant legitimacy to the politicians to make sacrifices. But when we speak of a referendum over territory that Israel controls, it is important to point out the main failure of the proposal: Those who need to be asked about the future of these territories are really the people who live there.
A referendum is accepted as a tool for determining questions of self-determination. It has been used concerning territories whose residents do not control them, where they are asked if they want to integrate into the country that controls them, or alternately to receive independence. That is how it was, for example, in East Timor, which was under Indonesian occupation and, in the wake of a referendum, became an independent nation.
A referendum is also used over territories that are part of democratic countries but contain those who wish for independence, In Quebec, for instance, referenda were carried out in which only the residents of those territories took part - not all the citizens of Canada - and the majority decided they were happy to remain part of Canada.
In 2014, a referendum will be held in Scotland on the question of whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to seek independence. In Northern Ireland, a referendum was held with the goal of approving the agreement that determined it would remain part of the United Kingdom. In both cases, only the residents of the territories whose fate was/is under discussion participated/will participate in the referendum, not all the residents of the United Kingdom.
In all these cases mentioned, the referendum is used as a democratic means through which the residents of the territory can express their position on their future, while implementing the principle of self-determination. Only in Israel do they think it is not the residents of the relevant territory but the citizens of the occupying country who need to hold the referendum, in which the future of the occupied territory and its residents will be determined.
In other words, we are asking the wrong people. Even if the majority of Israeli citizens will want to continue to rule the territories, this will not be a legitimate decision, since the residents of the territory are those who must decide on their future. It is impossible to justify, in the name of a so-called democratic process, the continued rule of occupation that is not democratic. The proposals that are calling to ask Israel's citizens about the future of the territories, not the residents of the territories, expresses a way of thinking in which the rights of the Palestinians do not matter.