Time for a referendum on annexing the West Bank and Gaza

By David Lehrer

With Israeli elections on the horizon, one would expect progressive parties to recognize how dangerously close the Jewish state is to a complete democratic meltdown, and to put forward initiatives that have a realistic chance of stabilizing Israeli democracy.  An independent Jewish state and an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace may no longer be a realistic solution.

It is time for the Israeli public to ask itself what kind of a future it wants for its children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For this reason, I propose that political parties that champion a democratic Jewish state should demand a national referendum to decide where the country wants to be five years from now. The referendum will express whether Israel wants to be a country that is isolated from the rest of the world including much of world Jewry, that continues to deny basic civil and human rights to millions of Palestinians and that curtails the civil rights of its own citizens for the sake of national security – or whether it wants to be a country that champions democracy and shines a light upon the nations.

This broad notion of public choice in a pragmatic way presents some challenges. Currently, Israel has a legal mechanism for a national referendum on territorial concessions, but not on annexation.  The legislation would need to be expanded to enable a nationwide debate over the opposite scenario for which it was developed.

A referendum on the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza to the State of Israel and the granting of full citizenship to all residents would certainly raise a clamor from all sides of the Israeli political spectrum.  While there are those on the left and on the right who support different variations of a one-state solution, it is not clear that all would agree to granting full citizenship to Palestinians.  In my opinion, however, a national referendum on annexation in a democratic state could not propose anything less – that would be an official acknowledgment of apartheid.

A referendum on annexation of the West Bank and Gaza would enable us to break out of the entrenched political positions and reconsider what is really important to Israelis and Palestinians.  The official Palestinian position will likely be to oppose any unilateral move by the State of Israel. However, there are already many voices within Palestine arguing that the two-state solution is no longer a viable option.  An initiative to annex the territories and grant full citizenship to Palestinians residing there opens up a whole new set of questions, including those relating to the nature of the Jewish state and the roles that will be played by democracy, religion and ethnicity. The initiative also removes some discussions from the negotiating table, such as the status of Jerusalem, and enables a paradigm shift for other issues, like the right of return for Palestinians and Jews.

There is of course no guarantee that the referendum would result in a vote in favor of annexation.  Would a rejection of the referendum mean that the country is then morally bound to determine and implement a clear policy in favor of two states? How would the Palestinians respond to a rejection?What about Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel? These are questions which must also be considered.

But it seems likely that if the Israeli public began discussing the granting of full citizenship to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, while many Palestinians would oppose such a move, others might rise to the occasion and begin to demand those rights themselves.  Finally, a referendum on the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza might create new alliances between left and right, which would enable Israel to move out of the current political quagmire and onto solid democratic ground.

David Lehrer is the Executive Director of the Arava Institute, now on sabbatical. This article represents the views of the author and do not represent the views of the Arava Institute.