ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Referendum Entanglements 14.2.05

Referendum Entanglements

14 February 2005

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Despite the proportional system of representation in the Knesset there are those who believe Israel is not democratic enough. The 120 member body voted months ago by a majority of 67 – 45 to endorse the Gaza and northern Samaria disengagement. But opponents are calling it undemocratic, demanding a referendum. Israel has no referendum law and therefore the move is seen by supporters of PM Ariel Sharon's disengagement (re: two-state) policy as a delaying tactic, even if it is not. Accusing Sharon of being a dictator, the right wing opposition is demanding a referendum.

However the issue of passing a "Referendum Bill" in itself must be discussed. It means delegating more power to "the people" which sounds all very good and liberal. Ceding parts of the Land of Israel is no doubt a major issue and referendum supporters demand that "Am Yisrael" – the Jewish people - make the decision and not the government. So does that discount the non-Jewish population of the state, most of whom consider themselves Arabs? Being a democracy any referendum in Israel will include everyone.

Most of the hard line right wing opposition to Sharon identify themselves as religious. Hanan Porat, former Knesset member and founder of the Gush Emmunim settlement movement along with other Judea, Samaria and Gaza (Yesha) leaders declare they will end all opposition to the disengagement should "the people" vote for it. Interesting, since for better or for worse "the people" were never consulting about building settlements, whether just after the 1967 War when Labor began a small scale operation or ten years later when it became the central platform of the Likud. Freely elected governments have decided settlement (and uprooting – remember Sinai 1982?) policies.

But let us assume that democratic values are being pushed by naïve ideologues. The demand is for a separation of governmental authorities who represent the State, from the Land itself. "The people" will decide directly. And what about a separation of those same authorities from religion? Would the advocates of a referendum today demand a popular hearing on the introduction of civil marriage and divorce? Most Israelis are against the rabbinical monopoly concerning personal status. Many demand a full separation of state and religion. To get a bit absurd – what about the state budget and taxes? Would it not be best for the government get out of the way and let "the people" decide? And do not let anyone try to convince Israelis that the referendum law can be tailor made exclusively for land related issues. Israel's Supreme Court can be counted on to interpret "the spirit" of a "Referendum Bill" in a rather broad fashion sometime in the future.

Those who truly support a referendum are looking for a way out and it is understandable. They need to be defeated by "the people" and then will concede defeat. Should they win Israel will be well on its way to a bi-national state, a continuing Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza, a sharper split between Left and Right and possible international sanctions accompanied by a worsening relationship with the US. Furthermore, the question as to whether another referendum could ever be held on the same question, would still remain.

 

With an overwhelming Knesset vote supporting Sharon and public opinion polls running two to one in favor of the disengagement, why demand a referendum with all its drawbacks? After all, the Knesset does represent "the people". The answer is twofold: the hard line right wing pragmatists want to remain in the democratic consensus while at the same time not losing their constituencies. But short sighted as ever, no one is looking beyond the horizon to the next referendum.