The Plebiscite Absurdity

With Syria, the discussion and the agreements and disagreements are technical and tactical, and concern the precise borderline. Not anything insurmountable. It can quickly be resolved.

The Knesset members are panicking. The Golan Heights are about to slip out of Israel's grip and return to their owner. Best hurry up and secure them with heavy legislative chains, lest peace between Israel and Syria sneak up and prove too tempting for the government.

This sentiment concerns the plebiscite law the Knesset passed last week - albeit in its first reading only - which states that the public, and not the government or the Knesset, will determine whether to give back the Golan Heights or any other territory under Israeli sovereignty.

Granted, the bill states that a public poll will not be required if 80 legislators support the pullout. But where would such a majority be found?

It is difficult to understand why only ceding territory requires a plebiscite. Why not revoke the status of legislators, who are prepared to relinquish their representative role, and transfer further decision-making privileges to the people?

After all, the Knesset members who voted for this bill agree the public is wiser than they are. Let the public decide and the MKs serve as its couriers. That way, we can safely legislate the next war.

But it is not the MK's status as an elected representative that is at stake, nor is it the government's status as the entity responsible for making political decisions. At least not now. The bill, if passed into law, might jeopardize the very existence of negotiations with the Syrians, and without negotiations, there is no need to decide on withdrawal.

What is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expected to tell Syrian President Bashar Assad? "Let's discuss peace, a pullout, normalization and security arrangements, but just know that it's all worthless talk. I can agree to all your terms, but the decision is not mine to make."

Assad needs to be an utter fool to engage in dialogue with someone who is not qualified to make the ultimate decision. Nor can he be certain that it is in his best interest to set the foundations for an agreement with Olmert, in the hope that the Labor Party replaces him.

Labor boycotted the 1981 vote on the Golan Heights Law, which made it an integral part of Israel, but it supports the plebiscite law. And this is part of the absurdness of this legislation, since the No. 1 promoter of the dialogue with Syria is Ehud Barak, the Labor Party chair, who believes that peace with Damascus can be reached more quickly and easily than with the Palestinians.

The other absurdity is legal. The census law limits the government's authority to make foreign policy decisions, requiring an overwhelming majority or a plebiscite to pull out of the Golan, but the law itself is a regular law that can be altered or canceled with another law.

The third absurdity pertains to how the prime minister is dealing with the legislators. Last week, Turkey hosted the third round of talks between Syrian and Israeli representatives. The Turkish hosts were utterly optimistic. The talks, as Syria's foreign minister Walid Mualem explained, need to lead to an unmediated encounter.

Early next week, Olmert will sit at the same table as Assad. The French are exuberant. The United States is displaying less displeasure. But the prime minister is behaving as though this were no more than a casual encounter, another meaningless conference, where he will dine with the French president and a bunch of Arabs.

When the Knesset is acting like it has heat stroke, one could expect the prime minister, at the very least, to initiate a campaign aimed at swaying people's hearts and warming them up to the idea.

Let him take on the bill, its authors and supporters, let him employ his witty rhetorical skills and put the public through the "as if test." As if there were a plebiscite, as if the time had come to decide.

Vis-a-vis Syria, there are no essential disagreements, there are no historical quandaries, there is no holy land or Syrian refugees awaiting repatriation. The discussion and the agreements and disagreements are technical and tactical, and concern the precise borderline. Not anything insurmountable. It can quickly be resolved.

Where, then, is the prime minister's voice in all of this? Maybe he is holding his tongue because he does not view this dialogue as anything more than occupational therapy? Maybe he, too, has no faith in this peace with Syria, and less faith in his ability to make it happen? Maybe he, as he used to say about Assad, has not matured enough?