David Newman
Views on the Borderline

Referendums, Brexit and the Peace Process

Over the years that I have taught Israeli students about British politics, the point has always been made that while Israel sacrifices stability for proportionality (on which Israel scores highly), Britain has sacrificed proportionality , for stability, enabling its governments to manage its affairs from one election to the next without major coalition crises – even more so in recent years given the “fixed term” law which determines that a government will always run its full course unless a special motion is passed to bring about earlier elections – as Boris Johnson attempted, but failed, earlier this week.

No one is talking about British governmental stability any more.  Brexit has brought the British political system to its knees and Johnson has gone as far as stating that he may be prepared to face a legal challenge by not complying with this weeks Parliament vote obligating him to request an extension from the EU if an agreement is not reached by October 19th.  And as of yesterday, Parliament is now shut down for the next five weeks.   This, along with his brutal expulsion of 21 senior Conservative members of Parliament for voting against him (something which he did continually throughout his political career), and the resignation of senior ministers whom he only appointed a few weeks ago, has only served to transform the British political system  into the realms of farce.  or as we would best describe it in Israel, a major balagan.

The entire  Parliament must carry much of the blame for this farcical situation.  Rejecting Brexit  without an agreement  while, at one and the same time, voting down three different versions of  former Prime Minister’s Teresa May’s proposals which had been negotiated with  the EU. Someone forgot to tell them that the task of an elected Parliament is to make decisions, however difficult they may be. They can’t have the best (or is it the worst) of both worlds, and leave the entire country in limbo, not knowing where it is going – despite well over three years since the referendum which narrowly voted for Brexit – and during which period which there should have been ample time to move ahead and get its act in order.

Looking at it from the EU perspective,  there is little reason, if any, that the EU should agree to  a  further extension request even if it were to be made at the very last moment, meaning that the likelihood at present is that come October 31st, Britain will, by default, no longer be a member of the EU and Johnson will have achieved his objective.

But there is a much bigger question which needs to be raised – namely the role of a referendum in a Parliamentary democracy and the reason that Britain got itself in this constitutional mess in the first place.  Many argue that the elections are the referendum and that to have separate referenda on specific issues only serves to diminish the power of our elected  representatives. It is little wonder that few western democracies hold separate referenda – and if they do it is only on matters of huge national concern which may often cut across the normal political party divisions – such as Britain’s membership of the EU or, perhaps in the future, a new Israel-Palestine peace proposal.

Switzerland is a rare decentralized country where referenda are the norm, while in recent years a number of American States, headed by California, put local issues on the election agenda, to be voted for by the public on election day, if enough registered voters have requested, thus taking the decision out of the hands of the legislators and, in effect, handing it directly back to the people.

Israel has never had a separate referendum, while even in Britain such referenda have been far and few between.  As of 2018, only three national referendums have ever been held across the United Kingdom, in 1975, 2011 and 2016 – two of them dealing with the UK’s membership of the EU, and one relating to Scottish secession from the UK. Both of the latter referendum were decided upon by the Conservative government led by David Cameron.

It has often been  argued that were an Israeli government to negotiate another peace proposal, one which – on paper at least – would bring about an end to the conflict and would necessitate withdrawal from territories and evacuation of settlements, this should be brought to a national referendum and not left just for the Parliamentarians to decide. Given that such a decision would be critical for the future existence of the State of Israel, and that it would be such a highly contentious issue, it may be the only way forward – although at this particular point in time, there does not seem to be any indications of peace negotiations, not even at the wasteful Track II level, taking place.

A referendum was proposed in 2005 prior to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Sharon opposed the holding of a referendum, and the law was passed by the Knesset. Neither was Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai in the 1980s as part of the peace agreement with Egypt, put to a referendum. In July 2013 however, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill stating that any future peace agreement which includes territorial withdrawal should go to referendum.

But should such a referendum take place, it is necessary to learn from the huge mistakes of the British referendum on BREXIT. In the first place, the holding of a referendum must be binding – the people are supreme – and parliament should not be allowed to undertake any action which would prevent or delay the decision from being implemented. One of the great faults of the British referendum is that the  principle of parliamentary sovereignty, as interpreted at present, means that the decision was not constitutionally binding on either the Government or the Parliament and was no more than an advisory decision to be acted on as the government of the day sees fit.

There is no point in holding a referendum if the decision is not binding and overrules the Parliamentary sovereignty. At the end of the day, power rests with the people and if they are given the authority to make their voice heard, it must be acted on. The alternative, equally legitimate, is not to hold a referendum in the first place.

The referendum must also be clear in what it seeks to achieve. Ninety percent of the information regarding the implications of Britain leaving the EU was either unknown, or falsified, at the time of the 2016 referendum. The multiple economic and social difficulties were never presented to the British public, misleading information concerning the role of immigration, European decision making, and the amount of money paid annually by Britain to the EU, were put forward by the hard core political ideologues – who were much more active than the passive remainers who simply never believed it would happen and therefore did nothing to counter the pro Brexit rhetoric – , leaving an unclear and ignorant picture of what it really meant to remain or leave the EU.

There is little point in coming back afterwards and arguing for a second referendum because the facts were not on the table at the time of voting. It is the role of parliament to ensure that as much information as possible is out there, and such would indeed have to be the case if any such referendum were held about the Israel-Palestine peace process. The details of the agreement would have to be known, as too the alternatives, so that people (especially those on the losing side) would not feel that they have been misled or ill informed.

The way in which the question (or questions) are worded also have to be precise, understandable and coherent. If there are alternatives, they also need to be put on the voting slip, so that no one can turn around afterwards, as has happened with Brexit, and say “oh, but that’s not what we voted for …. Had we known, we would never have voted in this way”. A simple “yes” or “no” is clearly not sufficient.

Since a referendum on such a major issue would be an exceptional political event, the majority for passing should not be a simple fifty percent of the voters. Leaving the EU or signing an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, should necessitate a minimum of 60 percent, perhaps even two thirds, of the voters, assuming also that a high percentage of the electorate would vote. Special decisions concerning the future of the nation require special majorities, and a mere 52-48 percent majority is clearly not sufficient for such a decision to be made. In the case of an Israel-Palestine peace referendum, one could expect upwards of 80, even 90, percent of the population casting their vote.

And every citizen of voting age must have the right to participate. Just as the Scots, who overwhelmingly desire to remain in the EU (and clearly would not have voted to remain in the UK a few years previously had they known that a majority of UK citizens would vote to leave the EU), cannot be excluded from a Brexit referendum, equally the Arab citizens of Israel cannot be excluded from a referendum about conflict resolution and the status of the Palestinians. Israel is a democracy, refuting all attempts to display it otherwise or as a country which discriminates against its minority population. And the only way to ensure that this is upheld is to be absolutely clear that a referendum on issues relating to peace are inclusive of the entire citizenry.

It is highly likely that were a second referendum to be held over Brexit, the decision would go the other way. In the first place, many more people would participate including the many who were so sure that it would never pass (and there is hardly anyone who can claim that they knew the decision would go the way it did, this writer included) and stayed at home, or the many younger people who now have voting rights for the first time (there was a clear age differentiation in the Remain and Exit votes, more older people voting to leave, more younger people voting to remain) – those for whom the future of the UK is more relevant in their lives and who do not hark back to the jingoistic mantra of “putting the Great back into Britain”.

But equally (and I say this as an out and out remainer) the holding of a second referendum is an anti-democratic act – unless all of the provisos mentioned above are put into effect, not least the special majority. How are people to have faith in democracy if every time a vote goes against them, they immediately demand a new vote? The chances of holding a second referendum over Brexit are no longer on the table, but equally the poor planning and clarity around the conditions of the first referendum, should never have been allowed to happen.

If one day Israel returns to the negotiation table, and if (a lot of ifs) the negotiators produce a far reaching pace agreement, necessitating sacrifices by both sides, the government must consider whether to uphold the 2013  Cabinet decision to hold a referendum of the entire nation to give it legitimacy. And if it does so, then it needs to ensure that such a referendum is held under conditions which will make its decision binding, legitimate and implementable, in order to avoid the lack of clarity and inability to move ahead, as has been the case in Britain.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU. His three distinct, and vastly different, areas of expertise cover Border Studies, Israeli Politics and Society, and Anglo Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
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