Referendum on peace agreement just might pass

Referendum on peace agreement just might pass
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The first reaction of the Israeli Right to the possible revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations has been to rush legislation ensuring a referendum on a future agreement. The idea is to supplement Israel’s 2010 law with provisions that tailor it to apply to any kind of agreement (the existing law passed in 2010 is somewhat more limited), and to make it harder to overturn such a law.

A recent poll I conducted for Open Zion at The Daily Beast among Jewish Israelis showed that a clear majority of respondents – 53 percent to 34 percent – prefer to hold a referendum.

Right-wingers are more favorable to a referendum than the Left. In our survey, the Left was divided, but by a slight margin, preferring not to hold a referendum (44 percent of the Left favor it, 48 percent were opposed – within the margin of error).

That’s primarily because the political right has brandished and branded the referendum as a sort of defense measure to halt an agreement (having suddenly remembered that democracy is important after all). Naftali Bennett is so committed to this notion that he wrote it into the coalition agreement (Hebrew) between his party, Jewish Home, and Likud-Beitenu – a referendum law must be passed in the Knesset within 90 days of the formation of the new government. He is now reportedly prepared to vote against the budget should the law fail to materialize.

Right-leaning voters have clearly assumed that a referendum will be the final barrier against a final status agreement, hence their stronger support.

The entire approach is predicated on those Israelis’ assumption that in a referendum, Israelis would vote against an agreement.

So as a public service, it is worth reminding everyone that surveys consistently show that a majority of the Israeli public favors a two-state solution. In a June survey for the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, 58 percent of Jews supported the two-state solution, and 62 percent of all Israelis including Arab respondents.

But in addition to polls, there are also election results. Consider the following: Likud-Beitenu, Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party), Labor, Meretz, Kadima, Ha’tnua (The Movement – Tzipi Livni’s party), and Hadash all support the two-state solution, at least in theory.

-Those parties together total 83 Knesset seats.
-Those parties together represent 63.67 percent of the electorate who voted in 2013.
– All of those calculations do not include Shas, which has been known to accept the two-state principle in the past and possibly in the future. That’s another 11 seats and 8 percent of voters.

It’s true that there’s a big qualification regarding what those parties mean by “supporting” a two-state solution. Up until now, that has meant primarily lip service. But it’s not a reason to assume all those people will vote against their own stated principles.

If the right-wing citizens who support a referendum are counting on a “no” vote, they might want to take heed – they could be supporting the legislation based on some serious miscalculations.

Finally, the following points are reprinted from my earlier article, and they bear repeating.

[Referendums in conflict situations] are often a tool of self-determination, allowing people to express how they wish to be governed. Holding a referendum about the fate of a territory but keeping millions of inhabitants there from participating is quite a perversion of the notion of the people’s voice. So much so that it could actually be conducive to Palestinians demanding the vote en masse, with their fate at stake.

There is a remedy available: let both sides vote, but separately. There’s also a precedent: in Cyprus, a plan to resolve the decades-old conflict once and for all was put to a referendum in 2004. The vote was held separately in both the Greek south and among the Turkish population in the north; both would have had to endorse the agreement for it to go ahead.

It seemed like a fair approach. Likewise, if Israelis and Palestinians were to both vote, no one can claim unfair privilege. The Israeli Right, which already seems persuaded that Israelis would vote down an agreement and therefore supports holding the plebiscite, can feel even more assured, given its ancient conviction that Palestinians are warmongers who reject peace at every opportunity.

But right-wingers hoping that a direct vote will stymie an agreement should consider two warnings: in the Middle East, as in the Eastern Mediterranean, expect the unexpected. Such a vote may very well pass, and then the Right will have no excuse to reject an agreement. Then there’s the Cyprus experiment: In 2004, most observers were sure that both sides would vote yes. And sure enough, the referendum passed handily among the Turkish Cypriots. But Greek Cypriots, who held international sympathies up to that point, rejected it. Their conflict remains unresolved, but there has been a paradigm shift in the world’s understanding of which side embraces peace and who has rejected it. If the referendum fails in Israel, Israelis might not be so keen to shout that out from the rooftops.

Endgame: Conditions for the success and failure of the peace process