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Referendum on peace agreement just might pass

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The first reaction of the Israeli Right to the possible revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations has been to rush legislation ensuring a referendum on a future agreement. The idea is to supplement Israel’s 2010 law with provisions that tailor it to apply to any kind of agreement (the existing law passed in 2010 is somewhat more limited), and to make it harder to overturn such a law.

A recent poll I conducted for Open Zion at The Daily Beast among Jewish Israelis showed that a clear majority of respondents – 53 percent to 34 percent – prefer to hold a referendum.

Right-wingers are more favorable to a referendum than the Left. In our survey, the Left was divided, but by a slight margin, preferring not to hold a referendum (44 percent of the Left favor it, 48 percent were opposed – within the margin of error).

That’s primarily because the political right has brandished and branded the referendum as a sort of defense measure to halt an agreement (having suddenly remembered that democracy is important after all). Naftali Bennett is so committed to this notion that he wrote it into the coalition agreement (Hebrew) between his party, Jewish Home, and Likud-Beitenu – a referendum law must be passed in the Knesset within 90 days of the formation of the new government. He is now reportedly prepared to vote against the budget should the law fail to materialize.

Right-leaning voters have clearly assumed that a referendum will be the final barrier against a final status agreement, hence their stronger support.

The entire approach is predicated on those Israelis’ assumption that in a referendum, Israelis would vote against an agreement.

So as a public service, it is worth reminding everyone that surveys consistently show that a majority of the Israeli public favors a two-state solution. In a June survey for the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, 58 percent of Jews supported the two-state solution, and 62 percent of all Israelis including Arab respondents.

But in addition to polls, there are also election results. Consider the following: Likud-Beitenu, Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party), Labor, Meretz, Kadima, Ha’tnua (The Movement – Tzipi Livni’s party), and Hadash all support the two-state solution, at least in theory.

-Those parties together total 83 Knesset seats.
-Those parties together represent 63.67 percent of the electorate who voted in 2013.
– All of those calculations do not include Shas, which has been known to accept the two-state principle in the past and possibly in the future. That’s another 11 seats and 8 percent of voters.

It’s true that there’s a big qualification regarding what those parties mean by “supporting” a two-state solution. Up until now, that has meant primarily lip service. But it’s not a reason to assume all those people will vote against their own stated principles.

If the right-wing citizens who support a referendum are counting on a “no” vote, they might want to take heed – they could be supporting the legislation based on some serious miscalculations.

Finally, the following points are reprinted from my earlier article, and they bear repeating.

[Referendums in conflict situations] are often a tool of self-determination, allowing people to express how they wish to be governed. Holding a referendum about the fate of a territory but keeping millions of inhabitants there from participating is quite a perversion of the notion of the people’s voice. So much so that it could actually be conducive to Palestinians demanding the vote en masse, with their fate at stake.

There is a remedy available: let both sides vote, but separately. There’s also a precedent: in Cyprus, a plan to resolve the decades-old conflict once and for all was put to a referendum in 2004. The vote was held separately in both the Greek south and among the Turkish population in the north; both would have had to endorse the agreement for it to go ahead.

It seemed like a fair approach. Likewise, if Israelis and Palestinians were to both vote, no one can claim unfair privilege. The Israeli Right, which already seems persuaded that Israelis would vote down an agreement and therefore supports holding the plebiscite, can feel even more assured, given its ancient conviction that Palestinians are warmongers who reject peace at every opportunity.

But right-wingers hoping that a direct vote will stymie an agreement should consider two warnings: in the Middle East, as in the Eastern Mediterranean, expect the unexpected. Such a vote may very well pass, and then the Right will have no excuse to reject an agreement. Then there’s the Cyprus experiment: In 2004, most observers were sure that both sides would vote yes. And sure enough, the referendum passed handily among the Turkish Cypriots. But Greek Cypriots, who held international sympathies up to that point, rejected it. Their conflict remains unresolved, but there has been a paradigm shift in the world’s understanding of which side embraces peace and who has rejected it. If the referendum fails in Israel, Israelis might not be so keen to shout that out from the rooftops.

Endgame: Conditions for the success and failure of the peace process

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    1. Kolumn9

      There are several reasons why the right supports a referendum. One is because the right thinks it can scare/anger enough people into voting no. Second because it improves the Israeli negotiating position without any possible credible opposition (what, you don’t believe in letting the people decide?). Third because it undermines the negotiations because the other side has to be concerned that an agreement will be reached but that it will fail in a referendum. Were this to happen the concessions will be banked as a starting point for future negotiations (again with the difficult to dispute argument of the people reject these conditions).

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        “Third because it undermines the negotiations because the other side has to be concerned that an agreement will be reached but that it will fail in a referendum.”

        On the contrary. The side that rejects a proposed agreement will open itself up to international sanction (and Israelis are seeing these sanctions form before their very eyes). Therefore, it becomes a “prisoner’s dilemma” as to who rejects and who approves, and the side that rejects should expect punishment.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Hard to see your line of argument having much of an impact on an Israeli voter in a referendum while the Europeans are preparing sanctions with no relation to the state of negotiations. And now you know why the Israeli right made a big deal out of relatively insignificant steps by Europe.

          Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            Classic prisoner’s dilemma: If the Palestinians reject the agreement and Israelis accept it, then Israel will be in the clear, with no direct sanctions. However, if Palestinians accept and Israelis reject, then you should prepare for massive BDS activity at your door, possibly with American acquiescence, which will have direct consequences on the quality of life of every last Israeli.

            If both Israelis and Palestinians reject, then Israel will still come under sanctions, though not as severe as the previous scenario.

            So many possibilities. What to do… what to do…

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            The prisoner’s dilemma only works if there is certainty in the severity of the punishment resulting from the decision of the player. This is very much absent here. Not only that but the prisoner dilemma also doesn’t apply because the prisoner dilemma is entirely one dimensional – cooperation vs time served. In this case I, and many others, would argue that no deal is better from a security point of view in these negotiations than a bad deal even if that comes with some external consequences. Thirdly, in the prisoner’s dilemma that prisoners only have one choice – cooperate with the authorities or not. One prisoner can’t for example just get up and walk out of the game leaving the other inmate to do half the time (unilateral total separation). Or for that matter decide to deprive the other prisoner of food until that prisoner make the less optimal decision (withholding of taxes or collapsing the PA).

            Frankly, a boycott is still better than some of the potential consequences of a bad deal – lack of security, missiles falling on Tel Aviv, Iranian terrorist groups operating in Jerusalem, anti-aircraft missiles on the hills overlooking Ben Gurion, buses blowing up, etc.

            I personally don’t believe that there will be much of an international reaction to the rejection by either side of a peace deal in a referendum. Additionally the absence of a peace deal or peace talks have hardly damaged Israel’s ability to grow economically. So I don’t buy the argument that Israel must make heavy compromises to have economic growth.

            Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Abbas has also promised a referendum. The question is whether the Palestinian refugees outside of the West Bank and Gaza would be able to vote since it would affect them (if an agreement is reached, which is actually impossible, it would mean the Palestinians would give up the “right of return” of the refugees). No doubt powerful forces in the Arab/Muslim world would weigh in on this matter and accuse those who don’t want the refugees to vote of being traitors.
      In any event, this question is purely academic…there is no chance of an agreement being reached. The Palestinians simply don’t want one.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        “there is no chance of an agreement being reached. The Palestinians simply don’t want one.”

        Also some Israelis don’t want one. I could name one (hint – his name starts with an X).

        Reply to Comment
    3. Philos

      Dahlia, I suggest taking a look at the referendum on Cypriot reunification that was voted out by the Greek Cypriots. Their admission into the EU was conditioned on that yet they still got into the EU anyway. Since then it has been total deadlock on the island with regards to the resolution of that issue.

      Reply to Comment
    4. It’s academic. No Israeli legislature will ever accept a ‘Final Status’ handover that includes east Jerusalem, and no Palestinian legislature will ever accept one that doesn’t.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Aaron Gross

      There seems to be some confusion in this article between a two-state agreement and a two-state solution. Israelis support a two-state solution, but not just any agreement. Palestinians sometimes support an agreement but always oppose a two-state solution, by a large majority in fact (according to surveys Dahlia has cited here).

      Given that situation and the current Israeli and PA governments, it’s extremely unlikely that an agreement would even get initialed by the two sides.

      Reply to Comment
    6. @Philos – Thanks for that suggestion, it might never have occurred to me. That’s because I worked on the campaign in 2004 and I know the Cyprus referendum, both text and context. It was not a condition for EU entry – in fact GC President Papadopoulos was able to publicly call on GCs to reject it and still be able to join EU. You, however, are invited to read my article because it seems you missed the point of my reference to Cyprus: that b/c the referendum failed on the GC side – and I take no position on the reasons and the justification – the conflict remains unresolved.

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        Thanks Dahlia. I’ll have a read of that article!

        Reply to Comment
    7. kate

      I would think this one is quite easy-the Israeli Right is assured that no ‘peace’ deal that doesn’t result in a Palestinian state that is no more than an Arab only island surrounded on all sides by Israel/IDF will be oked and just as assured that the Palestinians will never okay such a deal, but in the end who gets blamed for the failure is what’s really important and if the Palestinians refuse and Israel accepts well the answer is obvious the internet warrior already have their lines written for them, if the Palestinians are not sanctioned for their failure then cries of antisemitism and the Left hates Jews will be heard, IOW same sh*t different day

      Reply to Comment
    8. Dahlia, having endured 5 years of the health care debate in Republican Arizona, I can attest to the ability of media to convert us all into rabid carnivores of each others’ lives. With a large enough proportion of the population effected, with real social economic conditions details, much of this media can be shaken out. I fear neither one of these conditions are present in your land’s case, so thereby fear the short term power of media in a referendum. Which is exactly what, I think, Bennett wants. I fear the willed ingnorance of what the Bank is becoming.

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    9. rsgengland

      The only way Netanyahu will get this past the more extreme members of his coalition, is via a referendum.
      If there is any “peace agreement”, which requires painful/difficult decisions and actions, a referendum might help to prevent a recurrence of what happened during the evacuation of Gaza.
      The will of the majority of the population in Israel would be known.
      A referendum in the West Bank [Judea and Samaria] would likewise allow the Palestinians a voice in their future [unlikely, but a hope anyway].

      Reply to Comment
    10. Piotr Berman

      I guess that the current government will be to obstructive to allow for an agreement, but it is not impossible.

      In that hypothetical situation, if there would be a campaign by the right against the agreement, the vote of the Arab sector can increase, because many members of that sector do not vote on the assumption that it does not matter, but in referendum it will not be the case. I would also assume that the “Jewish center”, followers of Lapid and Livni, would be for the agreement.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Depends on the agreement and how many bombs blow up in restaurants in the week preceding it.

        Reply to Comment