Israelis don’t get to hold a referendum on Palestine

A recent poll found that if there were a Brexit-style referendum over whether to maintain Israeli control over the West Bank, most Israelis would choose ‘remain.’ But is that up to Israelis to decide?

An Israeli votes in national elections, March 17, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
An Israeli votes in national elections, March 17, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

If there were a referendum in Israel about whether to “leave” the West Bank — while holding onto most of the settlements — only 41 percent of Israelis would vote “leave.” If you narrow that down to Israel’s Jewish citizens, a mere 36 percent would vote “leave,” according to June’s Peace Index poll, published by the Israel Democracy Institute earlier this week.

And who would have a say in such a referendum? Well, the “Peace Index” pollsters only asked Jewish Israelis that question. Just over 50 percent of them said all Israeli citizens should get a vote, 44 percent said only Jews should have a say.

The framing of the question and those allowed to answer it — of whether or not the Israeli army should continue occupying 2.5 million Palestinians — along religious lines is an apt metaphor for the power dynamics at play in the conflict.

The Palestinians aren’t given any agency in their own future. And that’s true not only of the Palestinians living under Israel’s military regime in the West Bank; the idea of disenfranchising Palestinian citizens of Israel is also presented as an entirely legitimate idea.

The pollsters reveal through the phrasing of the question that it is inspired by the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom last month. In that poll, UK citizens were asked whether they want to leave the EU. Let me repeat that, the citizens of the UK were asked to decide their own fate.

Similarly, Scotland held a referendum a year and a half earlier on whether to secede from the United Kingdom. In that vote, Scottish citizens — and Scottish citizens alone — were allowed to decide the fate of their country: who their rulers would be, what their constitution would look like, and under what flag they should live. Citizens of England, Wales and Northern Ireland had no say in the matter.

Palestinians, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of deciding their own fate in a referendum.

Another, perhaps more troubling question asked by the “Peace Index” pollsters, was about the participants’ preferred outcome of Israel’s control over the West Bank. Almost 55 percent of the Jewish respondents chose a situation that can only be described as apartheid: where inside the West Bank Jews have more rights than Palestinians, in which Jews can vote and Palestinians cannot, in which Jews live under one set of laws and Palestinians under another. (22.7 percent said perpetuating the current situation is preferable, another 32 percent said they prefer annexing the West Bank but not giving Palestinians equal rights.)

Palestinians are not ruled by Israel by consent, which is the the most fundamental premise of democracy and modern political theory. The very nature of military occupation means that the Palestinians have no say in their fate — they are given no agency. But that is not a legitimate situation.

Israelis do not have the democratic right to decide the fate of the Palestinians, or anyone else for that matter. Israelis only have the right to decide their own fate — whether they want their country to be a democracy. And if Israelis choose to be a democracy, that means the only people who should be voting on the fate of Palestine should be Palestinians.

(The poll was conducted by telephone on June 28-29, 2016, and included 600 respondents, 500 Jews and 100 Arabs, a representative national sample of the adult population of Israel 18 and over. The margin of error is ±4.1 percent.)