The new Israeli government recently raised the idea of amending the existing referendum law to require the Israeli people to vote on any future peace accord, along with other measures designed to raise the bar needed to pass an agreement. The current law from 2010 requires a national vote only in the event of concessions over territory Israel considers sovereign, such as East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. But Israel never formally annexed the West Bank. So in an imaginary world where Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are revived, a fantastical world where an agreement is reached, and a hallucinatory parallel universe where the leaders are actually prepared to sign and seal the deal to create a Palestinian state there, the Israeli people would have to vote on it first.
Does the Israeli public even want such a role? Is the country within the Green Line not already sufficiently democratic? Aren't elections lively and famously competitive enough, with over 30 parties contending in the last round?
In the first poll about this to be made public since the revival of the topic, conducted exclusively for Open Zion, we gave respondents two positions and asked which was closer to their view: "A referendum should be held on any final status accord with the Palestinians. Because the subject is so sensitive, it's important to check if the people support it," or "A referendum should not be held on a final status accord with the Palestinians, because the people already chose the government in a democratic process." The options were rotated so as not to bias the answers; the survey was conducted by New Wave Research, using the internet, among a representative sample of 500 adult Jewish Israelis, on May 7 (margin of error +/-4.4%).
The poll found that for a clear majority of Jewish Israelis, vibrant democracy just isn't enough: 53 percent of respondents side with the view that on this sensitive subject, people should prove their support. One-third (34 percent) chose the option that democratic elections were sufficient, and about 14 percent either didn't know or expressed conflicting feelings (choosing "both" or "neither").
That majority does not seem to have embraced the referendum for particularly democratic reasons, but due to hawkishness. In general, Israelis mostly accept the terms of a two-state solution, but they aren't too keen to get there. Now, as in 2010, the referendum debate has been advanced by the right—in the latest discussions, that includes the Prime Minister, and Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party popular among settlers. (Interestingly, Avigdor Lieberman has expressed skepticism.) They have implicitly communicated that it is a legitimate way for people to knock down, or at least water down, any agreement they don't like.
That explains why people who defined themselves as right-wing—nearly half the sample—were more likely to support the measure. Among those, nearly two-to-one favored the position supporting a referendum (57 percent), and 30 percent opposed it. Those who call themselves centrist broke down similarly (58 percent for, and 36 percent against).
Among self-described left-wingers (just under one-fifth of the sample), a plurality opposed the referendum, with 44 percent for it, and 48 percent against. Although we tried to check the appeal of the argument based on democratic principles, these findings imply that most view it primarily in terms of their attitudes toward the conflict (which is the major determinant of left/right ideology in Israel).
The fact that a majority favors the referendum raises the question of whether voters have thought through all the angles of what a referendum is and means, in terms of other recent political trends. For example , the embrace by hard-liners of a tool known as direct democracy when the previous right-wing government was more interested in squandering democratic norms looks cynical and hypocritical. Suddenly those right-wing figures need more democracy, it seems, when it serves their interest alone.
And has the public considered what referendums in conflict situations are about? They 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-winger 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 experiement: 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.