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Referendum Rejection

17 October 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Israeli PM Ariel Sharon is steadfastly opposed to a referendum over his Gaza Disengagement plan, and many do not understand why. After all, a plebiscite would appear to be the most democratic process possible. It should only be so simple.

Israel has no law allowing for a referendum on any issue. As far as democracy is concerned, the Knesset represents the people in a super democratic way, meaning by proportional representation. If a political party receives 10% of the popular vote, they are awarded the same percentage in mandates. In this case, 12 seats out of 120. A political party must pass the 1.5% threshold to gain their first seat. Each representative is worth .833% of the vote. The Israeli political system is overly democratic.

Sharon claims that there is not enough time to organize the referendum since he wants to begin the Disengagement within a few months. Furthermore, he has promised the Americans, the Europeans and the world that he will be true to his timetable.

Last week, after meeting with settlement leaders, they complained he was completely unsympathetic, unbending and in a word, “obtuse”. The PM raised the possibility of having referendums on everything, including religious legislation and future moves in the peace process (where he spoke of being forced to cede Jerusalem by an unsure populace). Over the past week it appears the majority of his Likud faction led by the Finance Minister Netanyahu is in favor of the plebiscite, which he refuses to hold.

But all of the above are just tactical maneuvering and explanations, which do not get to the heart of the matter. If he was sure of winning the vote, he could certainly consider holding it. At the moment he has a 2 to 1 majority in the public opinion polls, but “the people” are fickle. The settlers have promised to visit every Jewish home in Israel to press their point on a personal level that they will become “refugees”. They promise to make the full comparison to Jewish expulsions around the world during the centuries.

Sharon will attempt to explain that should Israel not disengage from the Palestinians, a bi-national state is around the corner. The image of Israel as the former South Africa is penetrating many foreign ministries around the world. Sharon’s logic may very well be defeated by the settlers’ “refugee emotionalism”. This is the reason for elected leadership, to make the tough decisions even if they are emotionally uncomfortable at the moment.

In addition there is a more devious political game involving a shift in policy by the Israeli Arab leadership. One would expect all to be in favor of the Disengagement, but today out of 8 MKs from the Arab lists, apparently 2 will vote in favor, 3 have announced their vote against and another 3 may join them. The message to Israel’s Arab population is clear: a bi-national state is a future option.

Sharon is fearful of losing the referendum vote, plain and simple. Israel will then be left with a policy leading to self-destruction. Unless, of course, there will be the number of referendums necessary to ensure a “Yes” vote on every planned withdrawal. With 22 out of 40 Likud MKs supporting him along with Labor, Shinui and a few smaller parties it appears the Gaza Disengagement has a majority of 66 out of a 120 member Knesset. Tomorrow, Sharon will play his cards, parliamentary style.