The Referendum Scam

Israel is now facing momentous decisions that will affect the security of the nation and the welfare of its people for years to come. The most immediate issue is the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the first withdrawal from the West Bank. Before taking steps that are irrevocable, and uprooting Jews from their homes, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that the entire citizenry be polled to determine whether Prime Minister Sharon’s plan reflects the will of the people. At least it would be reasonable if the people demanding such a referendum were sincere in their willingness to accept the result.

Few people who favor the plan have called for a referendum; a vote is supported by the opponents of disengagement who see it as their best chance of forestalling its implementation. Supporters of the referendum see it as a way to, at a minimum, delay the disengagement because of the time it will take to hold the vote and the legal attacks they can mount to challenge the process and outcome.

The radical settlers who oppose any withdrawal also believe they could win a referendum because they know they can mobilize their supporters, who all feel very strongly, and whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. The majority of proponents of disengagement feel more ambivalent; they believe withdrawal is for the best but they also know it carries significant risks. Consequently, the backers of the plan may not turn out in large numbers to vote. It is similar to gun control in the United States. Polls consistently show large majorities support it, but the Congress consistently votes against legislation because the people who favor gun control do not feel strongly enough to lobby for it, while those who oppose controls feel very passionately and make sure legislators know they will be punished if they vote the wrong way.

Sharon already got a taste of this when he unwisely agreed to hold a referendum within the Likud Party. He lost badly. Since then, he has had to justify ignoring the will of his own party, a problem he could have easily avoided by making clear that as leader of the party he had the authority to make the decision.

Another problem with the referendum is that it is clear the opponents will never accept a negative result. After all, does anyone really think that Jews who believe God told them to live in the territories, or believe they are residing on holy ground, will accept the result of a terrestrial plebiscite?

We also have seen that many of the people who demand that democratic procedures be followed interpret democracy in a skewed manner in which only the voters they like count. Thus, we have the appalling spectacle of dissenters claiming the current unity government lacks legitimacy because it was created with a minority of Jewish votes; that is, they don’t recognize the votes of Arab citizens.

Consequently, you can be sure the settlers will never accept a referendum result unless a majority of Jewish Israelis vote against them. Even then, I doubt they would acknowledge defeat. Whatever the majority, radical settlers would claim a greater supermajority would be needed for such a serious decision. Proponents of a referendum have never said what margin they would accept, but it’s hard to believe they would abandon the fight if disengagement won the support of 50.1 percent of Israelis. But would they be any more willing to accept the result if the vote was 60, 70, or 80 percent against them?

Don’t be fooled; the referendum is nothing more than a smokescreen to try to derail the disengagement plan. While I began by saying that a national vote on such an important decision seems reasonable, the truth is that in democracies we vote for leaders to make the tough decisions for us. We don’t hold referenda every time an issue of importance arises. If we don't like the decisions our leaders make, we get to vote for someone else in the next election.

Disengagement will be painful, it will be costly, and it will be risky, but it enjoys the support of the majority of Israelis, and their elected representatives have made a decision they believe serves the interests of the nation. The democratic process allows dissenters the opportunity to peacefully protest that decision, but it does not require a referendum.