Whatever their other erudite reasons may be, including some that are even convincing, the opponents of a referendum on a withdrawal from territory in exchange for a peace agreement with the Palestinians have an unstated motive. They are deeply worried that Israel’s Jewish population will not be capable, for the first time in Jewish history, of taking the official, binding step of forfeiting portions of the very heart of the Land of Israel. Even for peace. The blood-soaked consequences of the Oslo process, along with the lessons gleaned from the uprooting of Israeli residents of Gush Katif in the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, also raise concern, justifiably, when it comes to the result of such a plebiscite.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has undergone a deep process of change in the past several years, both with respect to his politics and his personality. He is also prepared for an agreement that is negotiated based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, even if he doesn’t believe that such a price will satisfy the Palestinians. If the Palestinians surprisingly strike an agreement with Israel, however, Netanyahu will call on the public to vote in favor of a complete withdrawal. And Netanyahu believes he can convince the people. A referendum will also head off a historic schism among the people, if not worse. And if in exchange for a referendum, the leaders of the right wing are committing themselves to accept any results, then by all means, figures Netanyahu, let them have a referendum.
The people from the Hayabit Hayehudi party need such a referendum law no less than Netanyahu. It is only in this way that they can remain in the coalition and enjoy the perks of being in government − like in the good old days of their party’s predecessor, the National Religious Party. This camp has young and energetic backers who could cause ferment and instability, and Netanyahu has an interest in having the party in his camp, sitting at his side in the tent during the negotiations. A referendum law is a reasonable price to pay to tame Habayit Hayehudi party leader Naftali Bennett and avoid huge demonstrations and other unforeseen developments on the Israeli street.
People close to Netanyahu say the man has long gotten beyond the tactical stage and is determined to prove that to the extent that matters are in his hands, this is his strategic goal, and he was not bluffing in his Bar-Ilan University speech in 2009 when he supported two states for two peoples. He has internalized the fact that such an agreement can only come about “based on the 1967 lines.” Netanyahu (also) believes that it is only after an Israeli agreement to a complete withdrawal that the Palestinians might forgo, if at all, (although never explicitly!) the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. It is also only then that they might recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people (even if through circuitous, indirect language).
From an emotional standpoint, Netanyahu, as already mentioned, is already there. He has already agreed in practice to conduct talks based on the pre-1967 lines, even though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not deliver such a written assurance to the Palestinians. And it comes with other clear signals, including agreement to release terrorist murderers. All this shows that the die has been cast. Netanyahu still has considerable residual emotional and ideological ties with his former world, albeit ties that are looser and weakening. He is seeking to resolve this emotional thicket, and a referendum result in support of an Israeli withdrawal would salve his conscience.
A few of those who know him say there are provisions in his father’s will lest he divide Jerusalem or withdraw from Judea and Samaria. And there are of course also other commitments and assurances that the prime minister himself made over the years on the matter and which he swore to uphold. And they were recorded and written down, among other places in the prime minister’s straightforward book “A Place Among the Nations.”
It’s not me, it’s the people, he can tell himself (and his father?), if there is a referendum in which it is decided to divide Jerusalem, destroy dozens of communities and uproot tens of thousands of settlers. And if the people surprise him and vote against these moves? Then he can declare that he did everything he could but the people were against it.
Whether Netanyahu goes into talks wholeheartedly or halfheartedly, he is pushing for a referendum to salve his conscience over both diametrically opposite outcomes.