With the near-nonexistent Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process at a standstill, despite reports last week about a U.S.-Israeli deal (involving 20 warplanes) aimed at enticing the Palestinians back to the table, this week Israel’s Knesset passed a major law affecting prospective future deal-making with the Palestinians or Syria.
The law requires either a Knesset two-thirds majority or a national referendum to approve any peace deal involving the ceding of land that is part of sovereign Israel. Since a two-thirds Knesset majority in such a situation is well-nigh impossible, the legislation is already being called the “referendum law.”
The law in effect applies to three categories of land. Two of them—East Jerusalem (formally annexed to Israel in 1967 in the wake of the Six Day War) and any parts of pre-1967 Israel that might be used in a swap for parts of the West Bank—pertain to possible future deals with the Palestinians. The third—the Golan Heights (captured from Syria in the 1967 war, with Israeli law extended to it in 1981)—pertains to possible future deals with Syria.
The West Bank itself, to which Israel has never applied sovereignty, is not affected by the law.
The legislation passed by a wide 65-33 margin. It was overwhelmingly supported by right-leaning parties in the government coalition including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud, the large Yisrael Beiteinu faction of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the religious Shas Party.
But the referendum law also picked up a few yea votes (complemented by significant non-votes of absent MKs) from Labor, the left-of-center member of the coalition, and Kadima, the large left-of-center opposition party. The nay votes came from other Labor and Kadima MKs, the small far-Left Meretz faction, and the Arab parties.
The usual crowd lost no time denouncing the legislation. Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said that “the Israeli leadership, yet again, is making a mockery of international law. Ending the occupation of our land is not and cannot be dependent on any sort of referendum.” The Syrian Foreign Ministry used similar language and said the law “shows the truth to anyone who still holds the fantasy that Israel is interested in peace.”
Within Israel, the far-left Peace Now organization said it would appeal the law to the Supreme Court. Much closer to the mainstream, Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor—who voted in favor of the law’s first reading last year and this time absented himself from the vote—said he was “just not sure it is needed right now. Israel’s enemies are likely to use it to claim we are against peace and handcuffing ourselves to prevent any progress….”
In defending the law, Netanyahu’s office stated that “any peace agreement requires wide national agreement, and this law guarantees that. It…prevents a situation in which agreements are obtained through parliamentary maneuvers which do not reflect the people’s desire.”
It was an allusion to the infamous 1995 Oslo II vote, in which the then-dominant Labor-left bloc ensured passage only by bribing two purportedly right-wing MKs with cabinet seats and other perks.
Yet Netanyahu, in a speech of his own on Tuesday, echoed Barak’s concern about perceptions of Israel, stating: “I have faith in the Israeli people. I think that Israel is a wise, intelligent nation, and I’m convinced that if we present an agreement, it will pass.”
Was Netanyahu, then, implying that only a stupid people would reject ceding East Jerusalem or the Golan? If so, he was either insulting the people he was purporting to praise or ignoring repeated polls that show the opposite of what he suggested.
For instance, a poll last April found Israelis—by a 69%-13% margin—saying a division of Jerusalem would lead to generations of conflict rather than peace. And a 2008 poll found about two-thirds of Israelis opposing a peace deal with Syria that would entail a retreat from the Golan.
Far from being stupid, those positions are well grounded in experience. The division of Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967 created a nightmare of sniper fire and constant danger for Israelis in West Jerusalem, while all Israelis were—in direct contravention of a UN-brokered agreement—denied access to Jewish holy places in the city.
And in that same period, Syrian control of the Golan created a nightmare of frequent shelling for Israelis living below the Heights. Last year an exhaustive study by Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland (a shorter statement by him is on YouTube), formerly head of Israel’s National Security Council, concluded that:
Israel does not possess a plausible solution to its security needs without the Golan Heights…. changing circumstances, both strategic and operative, have rendered Israel’s forfeiture of the Golan today an even more reckless act.
One might ask: if these issues are so clear and the public’s position is known, why the need for the referendum law in the first place?
The question answers itself. The past decade has seen Israeli prime ministers—Barak in 2000, Ehud Olmert in 2008—make reckless offers to the Palestinians (and in Barak’s case, Syria as well) for which they had no mandate and that were opposed by the public. Barak’s coalition collapsed as a result. In those cases, the Syrians didn’t even deign to answer, and the Palestinians rejected both offers.
The risk remains, though, that future Israeli prime ministers—smitten by the peace bug and the desire for world accolades—will make similar irresponsible offers in the future. Although it does not seem likely, it cannot be ruled out that at some point the other side will accept one of them.
If so, the referendum law ensures that such an offer will genuinely reflect the will of the Israeli people—or, if it does not, will be stopped in its tracks.
Nothing could be more democratic. And nothing can better protect Israel from the whims of its sometimes-irresponsible leaders.