The Middle East Channel

Is an Israeli referendum on peace as bad as it seems?

The Israeli center and left, the Arab world, and many international figures are wringing their hands over the referendum law that was passed by the Israeli Knesset on November 22 (which would require a referendum to be held in the future event of Israel agreeing to territorial concessions in the Golan or East Jerusalem). Opponents say the referendum is an obstacle to peace, or that the law itself sabotages the process, and possibly spells the end of the two-state solution. Meretz leader Haim Oron worried that anyone "serious" will now despair of negotiating with Israel.

Does the new legislation really do all that? What about the referendum itself? Since the law indeed exists now, are there any possible benefits to be salvaged?

First, some perspective about how much the referendum law truly changes things. Israeli and Palestinian leaders at present seem far, far away from reaching an agreement. If, despite formidable obstacles, they do, it has to pass in the Knesset by a special majority. That sounds drastic, but it just means an actual 60-member majority (out of 120 lawmakers) - rather than the usual majority based on only those MKs who bother to show up to any given vote. The law would require that if 80 MKs approve the agreement, the referendum can be waived. The law itself can be overturned by simple, not even special, majority, as noted by Zeev Segal of Haaretz -- since it is not a Basic Law, but a regular law.

Further, the notion that an agreement would have to pass in Knesset was always part of the Israeli political reality and is nothing new. Indeed, the original legislation for a referendum on the Golan was proposed a decade ago; late Labor Prime Minister Rabin presumed it would be needed back in 1994; and the current effort was revived by a member of the then-ruling Kadima party in 2008. In light of this history, the actual legislation shouldn't shock anyone, least of all the center and left.

Now imagine that despite all those hurdles, there is an agreement. Here are some possible scenarios:

PASSAGE. The hand-wringers seem to have forgotten this, but there are a few factors favoring a successful referendum. First, the question text. The law says a referendum must be held on the issue of ceding sovereign territory -- such as Jerusalem, the Golan, or land swaps. If I was asked to think only about the most emotionally devastating parts of an agreement, I might be tempted by my heart to reject it too. But, by contrast to other countries where the question is subject to exhaustive haggling, Israel's law stipulates the text: "Are you for or against the agreement between Israel and (the other side) that was approved by the Knesset (on xx date)?" That will remind people of the whole agreement, as a package -- which the question recalls was approved by the country's democratically-elected Knesset. Whoever is the democratically-elected Prime Minister will presumably be leading the effort, which will also reassure the public.

Second, the environment will be charged. Years of public opinion research show that cynical Israelis are galvanized by actual developments on the ground, like pens hovering over agreements and the approbation of an American President. Read Stanley B. Greenberg's description of the climbing poll numbers supporting then-unprecedented compromises during the Camp David negotiations in 2000. The eyes of the entire world will be watching in disbelief and enthrallment. It will be hard to say no.

But why guess? The third reason to imagine it might pass is current research: in the latest Joint Israel-Palestine Poll of the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, the detailed agreement already wins support from a small plurality when both Arabs and Jews are polled -- just as they will be in a real referendum.

And if it passes, there are some benefits: the referendum would provide critical Israeli legitimacy for an agreement that is bound to polarize Jews everywhere. It may be ironic that society needs legitimization for what seems like such an obvious policy development, but it does. Remember the fears -- real or exaggerated -- of civil war surrounding the 2005 unilateral dismantling of settlements in Gaza. The Knesset's approval of Ariel Sharon's "Disengagement" proved a vital justification during the bitter struggle over implementation. And a peace agreement will involve far more emotional elements and those who support it might be cowed into silence by the ultra-vocal anti-peace camp. But a successful referendum could embolden potential supporters and help mitigate the collective sense of injury.

Of course, both Jews and Arabs could be affected by what is sure to be heated campaigning in either direction. The slim plurality in the Truman Institute study is not sufficient; the possibility that a referendum will fail must also be considered.

FAILURE. In 2004, Cyprus held a referendum on the UN-sponsored "Annan Plan" for reunification. Greek Cyprus, the stronger party, voted "oxi" - no (the weaker Turkish Northern Cyprus passed it). As a result, the island remained conflicted and divided as Greek Cyprus joined the EU -- and the negotiation process flounders to this day. A referendum in Israel could likewise fail. In that instance, Israelis might imagine that like Cyprus, Israel might continue reaping the benefits of being a full partner of the international community while keeping violence at bay.

But Israel is not Cyprus. First, its international status is deteriorating, and not likely to improve if the conflict festers. Second, Israel and Palestine have a much bloodier and more recent history of violence which is more likely to recur going forward.

Yet even failure opens another interesting possibility. The Palestinians might decide to view the Israeli poll as a de facto referendum on a unilateral declaration of statehood. They already claim that the fate of an international dispute should not be determined by the Israeli public. A failed referendum might be a signal to Palestinian leaders that Israelis will never make peace -- and they might argue that the world now knows it -- so the time has come to declare statehood without waiting for Israel.

This certainly isn't the preferred outcome for Israel or the international community, but it's a superior alternative to violence. And if the international community is at all forthcoming about recognition, then for Palestinians, things may even improve. 

In other words, whether Israel likes it or not, and despite some criticism to the contrary, the referendum law might not kill a two-state solution even if Israelis vote the agreement down. In sum, the referendum law does not necessarily improve the prospects for peace. But it does not necessarily destroy them -- and there may even be a few benefits.

Dahlia Scheindlin is an independent public opinion analyst who has provided strategy for four national electoral campaigns in Israel and in over a dozen other countries. 

AFP/Getty images

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