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A referendum is no tool for conflict resolution

A binding poll of Israeli citizens can't decide the Palestinians' political future; worse, it messes with democracy

A major campaign is now under way to conduct an official referendum in Israel on the future of the territories. The initiators of “Deciding at 50” — all associated with parties and organizations supporting a two-state solution — are promoting this tool as a means to extricate Israel from the present deadlock and force the government to reach closure on this most volatile of issues both domestically and internationally. But is a plebiscite the best vehicle to achieve this goal? Can it really trigger policy change in a coalition wedded to the perpetuation of the status quo? And could it truly advance the resolution of the conflict?

The idea of a referendum is motivated by the need to challenge not only the foot-dragging of the Netanyahu government on anything to do with a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, but also to address the inability of all leaders since Yitzhak Rabin to present any serious Israeli peace initiative. Urging a plebiscite — a notion traditionally favored by the right in Israel and legislated into a Basic Law (which carries constitutional weight) in 2014 — is a brash move designed to call the bluff of those who wish to maintain Israeli rule over the territories occupied in 1967 through a popular ballot.

Relying on continuous polls that show a solid Israeli majority favoring a two-state solution, the campaign aims at introducing a new dynamic that will simultaneously alter the current discourse and rattle the political somnolence that it upholds. From the perspective of the proponents of the campaign, the best possible scenario would be a majority Israeli commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Failure to get a Knesset majority to support a referendum at this time would carry its own political reward: it would show up the hypocrisy of the government and probably erase any possibility of using such a tool in the future.

Referenda, however, are very fickle political instruments. Is opening up the key question of the shape, composition and character of the Israeli state to a binding poll really the best way to move ahead an accommodation between Israel and its neighbors? Plebiscites are, by definition, inclusive devices. But they bypass the principle of representative government and relieve elected officials of responsibility for critical decisions. They therefore have built-in drawbacks: they frequently reflect moods, rather than well-considered choices; they are rarely based on that expertise needed to decide complex matters; they are subject to manipulation in their very structure and content. To conduct the first referendum in Israel’s history on the most essential and contentious question on the public agenda is foolhardy at best, if not downright irresponsible.

Those who nevertheless insist on pursuing such a step, arguing that this may be the vital game-changer that could transform ingrained reluctance into constructive progress, must overcome two major obstacles. The first relates to the content of the proposed referendum. As presently conceived, citizens will be asked to express their preference on the future of the territories. This, unlike issues posed in referenda elsewhere, is a hypothetical: it does not require affirmation or rejection of any specific accord or policy directive. More critically, the exact formulation of the question is unclear — as is the identity of those who will determine its wording. All this purposefully ignores mention of the precise details that have impeded a lasting agreement in the past and can hardly be expected to override them today. A referendum with such blurry substantive guidelines is therefore a diversion from the main task facing any Israeli government: designing and implementing a viable strategy to end what is now more than a century-old conflict.

The second, even greater, impediment concerns the determination of the referendum participants. Will these include all Israeli citizens? Will the plebiscite be restricted just to Jewish citizens of the country? Will it extend to incorporate Jews throughout the world? And where are the Palestinians in this equation?

The notion that Israelis have the right to decide the political destiny of Palestinians is beyond absurd. It assumes that Israel possesses all the lands in question and can retain or discard them at will. It then proceeds to exclude the Palestinians from participation in the determination of their own future, as if they are mere pawns subject to the changing whims of Israelis. This premise has no traction in the international community; it cannot lay claim to any historical precedent; and it is devoid of any moral foundation.

Referenda on the political future of areas under foreign rule have been an integral part of decolonization. In the post-World War II era, the future of mandates under UN supervision were often determined by plebiscites. This was the case in former French and British Togoland in 1956 (residents of the former opted for remaining in the French Union at the time; residents of the latter preferred to become a part of the soon to be independent Ghana). In 1961, a similar referendum in British portions of the former German colony of Cameroon led to the detachment of the southern areas from Nigeria and their integration into Cameroon, leaving the northern parts of the trusteeship as part of Nigeria. As late as 1999, a similar referendum was conducted under UN auspices in East Timor to decide whether to remain as an autonomous entity within Indonesia or to become independent (a choice supported by 78.50% of the population). In all of these instances, only the residents of the areas affected were included in the vote — not their overlords.

Recent referenda on other issues follow the same pattern. Citizens of the United Kingdom participated in the Brexit referendum this past May; only Scots took part in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. By no stretch of the imagination would any democratic country countenance that those living in British Columbia determine the political status of Quebec or that the English decide on the autonomy of Wales. The suggestion that Israelis would do so for Palestinians constitutes a gross distortion of the referendum concept, bordering on sheer and utter gall. Only the Palestinians can decide on their political future in the territories controlled by Israel for the past 50 years.

The current application of a plebiscite in the Israeli context is a striking mirror of a domestic discourse that has lost touch with basic democratic principles and with its surroundings. The proposals regarding its participants and its contents are a microcosm of the ongoing blindness of most Israelis to the rights of the Palestinians, to international law, to common sense and to Israel’s own ethical integrity.

Yet the revived demand for a referendum is now in the air. It probably won’t happen: the present make-up of the Knesset will not allow for the passage of a law enabling such an exercise. If it does, the results at the moment are unpredictable (a majority in favor of Palestinian statehood won’t necessarily bind the present government; a majority against will serve to fortify annexationist propensities). Whatever the outcome, they will not obligate the Palestinians.

So if the referendum campaign is intended to spark a serious debate on the future of the territories and force a recalcitrant government to take action, it might play some role. As a vehicle for conflict resolution, it is a very poor substitute indeed for concrete action — together with Palestinians — towards a just and lasting agreement.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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