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Israel's referendum problem

January 24, 2014 at 6:43 am

As peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials jumpstart into motion again, plenty of questions remain.

“What was on the menu for last week’s White House Iftar?” Fish and saffron risotto, of course. “Could talks really succeed this time?” Depends what you mean by success. “What about the settlements?” Next question.

Global Post summed up the fairly crushing level of cynicism with its article, ‘Not sceptical enough about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?’ Clearly the bar is low, even by the Arab-Israeli conflict’s standards.

One question that will matter if talks succeed – whatever that means – is the one distributed on ballot papers throughout Israel when it fields a nationwide referendum on territorial withdrawals in the West Bank. On Wednesday the Knesset passed a first reading on a bill that would make it a necessity by law to hold a referendum before any withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Jerusalem or pre-1967 Palestine.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said negotiations are expected to take nine months – that’s on the Washington sunshine and smiles schedule, which doesn’t take into account sticking-points like Right of Return, security and settlements – but Israeli lawmakers are hedging their bets early on, whatever the outcome.

At first this could look like a good thing. Israel is running any decision taken by its negotiators abroad by its people at home. This is Israel’s democratic right, surely?

Some of the debates inside Israel surrounding any future referenda have veered between this argument – direct democracy can be a good thing after all – as well as some more fringe views.

This week former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin concluded that a referendum, “if used properly, could have a calming effect and even prevent a civil war from breaking out.” Some have claimed Netanyahu has failed as a leader and so is turning to the people for help, a rather dim view of the electorate, while others say direct democracy undermines a representative system.

But closer investigation suggests there are far more pragmatic concerns at the heart of this bill.Israel’s existing referendum law, which had its first reading in 2008 and passed on its third reading in 2010, only applied to withdrawals from the Golan Heights (Syrian territory occupied during the 1967 war) and East Jerusalem. But not the West Bank.

In 2008 opposition chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu was all for the new law, but not for the democratically-minded reasons you might expect.

“In Western countries, giving up land is impossibly difficult,” he told the Knesset in June that year. “And in tiny little Israel, governments can relinquish land with unbearable ease. This is something that must be rectified, and the law can do that.”

There it was – “tiny little Israel,” and with it the Leviathan subtleties of Israel’s security lexicon. The law was a means of making it more difficult to give up land, illegally occupied and none of it Israeli. The parallel with “giving up land” in the West was an interesting one, precisely because it alluded to colonialism (some of it in the Arab Middle East). When was the last time the West started handing out territory back to native populations? It immediately conjures those halcyon days of post-colonialism, independence and the worldwide rollback of Europe’s drawing-room imperialism.

Netanyahu’s new law doesn’t actually make any legal changes to its predecessor, it is meant to “reinforce” the earlier law – as Haaretz reported – and will require a two-thirds Knesset majority or public approval (ie a referendum) before Israel will give up any land according to a peace deal. The law would also make the bill a Basic Law of Israel, further from the reach of the meddling hands of the Supreme Court.

A good gauge of the bill is its biggest supporters. Economy minister and poster boy for Israel’s hard right, Naftali Bennett, supports full-blown annexation of Palestinian territories and in the run-up to elections in January this year, presumably thinking he was on to a vote-winner, said: “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state.” (This week he got himself in trouble for bragging, “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life and there’s no problem with that.” Bennett’s aides say he was taken out of context, but have failed to suggest an alternative.)

Bennett threatened to vote down Israel’s 2013-2014 budget if the referendum didn’t pass. It is clearly important to him. You might say it fits in with his values.

MK Yariv Levin, Likud coalition chairman and the individual responsible for drafting the bill, has meanwhile revealed the basic intention of the would-be law.

“I am convinced that the people will not agree to ceding parts of the homeland. As coalition chairman, I will work to advance the passage of the law in the Knesset and at the same time work to expand it so that it will also apply to all of Judea and Samaria [the biblical name for the West Bank].”

The Jerusalem Post reported last week that Minister for Energy and Resources Silvan Shalom even suggested “what constitutes a majority [in such a referendum] should be determined in advance, as it would complicate matters if the outcome of the vote ran contrary to the wishes of the majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens.”

“No Israeli prime minister would be able to implement a peace agreement with the Palestinians if a referendum on the issue showed that a majority of Israelis supported such a deal,” the paper cited him as saying, “and that outcome had been decided by non-Jewish citizens of the state.”

This is the most cynical expression of what the referendum really stands for. Once you read what lawmakers are saying about the referendum it begins to look less like a tool for democracy, rather a tool for entrenching the status quo.

By making any territorial withdrawal, from the Golan, Jerusalem or the West Bank, up to a referendum, Israel is colonising by law – constructing yet another wall to obstruct international law and justice from sweeping in. The referendum bill makes it more difficult to cede land and blocks criticism of it with a glossy sheen of participatory democracy. The international community might struggle to argue its way out of this one.

Criticising Israel during peace talks can open you up to criticism of being unhelpful, churlish, even an “enemy of peace.” But the unfortunate fact is, if officials are honestly working hard to find a lasting and just peace, the least we can do is be honest as well.

The 1993 Oslo Accords taught us that the “success” of a peace between Israel and Palestine did not hinge on justice. Instead talks would have to follow the realities on the ground – a reality almost always dictated by successive Israeli governments. We’ve already seen this language reappear before negotiations proper start up again.

But if Israel is establishing a fall-back clause that aims to undermine the very raison d’etre of negotiations – land-for-peace – how committed is it?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.