Due to the likelihood of upcoming peace negotiations, talks have reemerged in the Knesset about Israel’s mandating a referendum on ceding the West Back (or any part thereof) to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal. This is important because even those who support a Palestinian state recognize that some parts of the West Bank, such as the Jordan Valley, are integral to Israeli security and should not be relinquished. Netanyahu is one of the strongest proponents of a referendum. Not surprisingly, however, the usual suspects are up in arms.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who in principle is the lead negotiator as per the coalition agreement, maintains that “When we declare war, we don’t ask the nation (what they think)…This is how it should also be regarding any political settlement.”
For her, this probably isn’t the best analogy. If her political settlement-making abilities are on par with her war-making abilities, then Israel is in big trouble. Under the Kadima-led government in which she was No. 2, Livni helped lead Israel to its greatest military embarrassment.
In an ideal world, those who were in a leadership position during the Second Lebanon War would reclusively carry the burden of their failure for the rest of their lives in a middle-of-nowhere moshav. Instead, and unfortunately enabled by Netanyahu, Livni feels entitled to take center-stage in peace negotiations.
Given that Livni was content in having Amir Peretz, a man with no direct combat experience, serve as defense minister during the war, one can only imagine who she’d want on her team negotiating with the Palestinians. Perhaps the guy who plays Mickey Mouse at Disney World is available.
With the inept Livni likely the lead negotiator, it must be made clear to her that her proposals will not only face scrutiny by the Knesset, but also by the public. This should ensure that she is kept in line, forcing her consideration of what the Israeli people believe is in their best interest rather than what she believes is in their best interest.
This issue, however, goes far beyond the faults of the lead Israeli negotiator.
It is true that in a republican democracy leaders are elected to make difficult political decisions, but there is a critical caveat. Leaders are expected to honestly represent their positions. When politicians are apt to deceive their voters, as we have routinely seen when it comes to the peace process, there must be a mechanism protecting the democratic will of the people.
The last peace proposal exemplifies this point. Despite the fact that Olmert had publicly declared his opposition to dividing Jerusalem, his peace plan called for the opposite. If it were actualized, Israel would no longer have full sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem. Instead, sovereignty would be shared with, among others, Saudi Arabia, a country known not only for its virulent anti-Semitism, but where judges sentence rape victims to lashes and practitioners of “witchcraft” are executed. Clearly, this is the progressive kind of country that the Israeli people would be comfortable with jointly administering the center of Judaism.
Fortunately, Israel has since passed a law demanding a referendum on any cession of territory under Israel’s declared sovereignty, “East Jerusalem” included. Thus, in effect, the public can block any comprehensive peace deal by voting down a division of Jerusalem or territorial swap. This, however, does not preclude Israel’s unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank and handing it over to the Palestinian Authority; Israel does not claim sovereignty over the territory.
This is problematic because land-for-peace deals have routinely placed the Israeli people at risk. The 1993 Oslo Accord ultimately provided Yasser Arafat with autonomous territories from where he could wage his war against Israel. Ehud Barak’s 2000 withdraw from Lebanon, aside from being perhaps Israel’s worst betrayal of an ally (the South Lebanon Army), placed Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border. And, of course, Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza set the conditions for the Hamas coup.
If Israel is to again use such a risky strategy that could directly threaten the lives of the citizenry, especially if the Jordan Valley is on the table, then the people should have a say in the matter.
Netanyahu’s time in the Knesset has provided him with ample experiences of witnessing a leader’s vulnerability to the narcissistic drive for being remembered as the one who brought or contributed to peace, blinding one to considerations of national security and the democratic will of the people. It says a lot about a leader willing to obviate such temptations by unilaterally limiting his power. Netanyahu should be applauded for this. The opposite can be said regarding those who oppose him.