Remember the date. November 22, 2010, the day Israel finally killed the two-state solution.
I know that for me, I will continue to hope that there is some way to still pull two states out of a hat. That’s my heart talking, because both in heart and mind, I very much doubt that a future that does not include a Palestinian state will include either peace or justice. But for at least a while, I’ll probably still hope.
But I can no longer see how it is possible. The Knesset today passed the “referendum law” by a 65 to 33 margin, with some members of Labor and most of Kadima walking out of the vote (though a few MKs from both parties voted in favor). The law dictates that any “retreat” from land that Israel currently claims as its own (meaning the territories it has annexed – the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem – though no country, including the United States recognizes those annexations) must be approved by a public referendum.
While I do believe that the Israeli public would vote to evacuate large parts of the West Bank, I see no possibility that a popular vote would approve leaving Jerusalem, probably including all the “Greater Jerusalem” area.
The bill also makes peace with Syria, which is conditioned on withdrawal from the Golan Heights, impossible. There might be even less public support for the Golan withdrawal than there is for a West Bank one; it’s just discussed less in the media.
What this law does is essentially present a choice to the international community: either force a resolution on the Israeli people or give up on the two-state solution.
There is a big political difference between forcing a government into something, even a democratically elected one, and forcing something on the populace. Until now, it had been the former that was the hope of peace activists who advocated an imposed settlement. Part and parcel of that idea was the belief that either the Israeli government wasn’t fully representing the will of the people or that the majority of Israeli Jews would feel ok with a solution if they saw it was working.
Indeed, part of the strategy that some Israeli peace activists have urged was based on the idea that a less intransigent Prime Minister needed outside pressure to provide him or her with political cover.
But that’s all done now. If there is any pressure towards a solution, let alone an attempt to impose one, it is not an abstract argument that Israel will raise, claiming that pressuring the government is pressuring the people. The pressure will be directly on the people, because of the referendum that the new law necessitates.
The argument is always inherently flawed. The US government takes many (I’d argue, most) actions that are contrary to the will of its people or done with their consent only because they are so poorly informed. When the Palestinian elections of 2006 occurred, almost everyone who understood the situation knew the result was a combination of people voting against the corrupt Fatah old guard, Fatah itself running a poorly organized campaign where multiple Fatah candidates split the vote in a number of districts, and only in part due to the rise of Hamas. But there has never been a majority of Palestinians supporting Hamas’ politics and ideology.
But here we will have any Israeli withdrawal from Jerusalem or the Golan being directly subjected to the vote of the Israeli people. Sounds democratic, no? And is it legitimate to deny the will of the people?
I fear that argument, despite its essential distortion of democracy, will be enough to blunt not only American but also even European action.
Why is this actually anti-democratic? Let’s start with the most obvious reason: it is not a poll of the people. Only Israeli citizens must approve any referendum, but the referendum would involve the very lives of millions of people in those same areas who would not be allowed to vote in the referendum.
This goes beyond issues of occupation. It expressly states that Israel considers East Jerusalem part of Israel, but will not give equal rights to the people that live there. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem will not be included in the referendum. And if Israel does decide to include them, as they are too few to change the outcome of the vote, there is still the imbalance of allowing a vote that means just as much to someone in Tel Aviv, who can vote, as it does to someone in Ramallah who cannot.
The idea of democracy is not majority rule. That is a basic tenet of democratic thinking, rooted in the magna carte and in the US Constitution, among other global documents. Just because the majority of American citizens supported slavery doesn’t mean that slavery should be tolerated. That’s why we have a constitution; one of the major features of a democratic republic is that laws are in place to protect the minority. It’s far from perfect, to be sure. But defense from a “tyranny of the majority” is a basic principle of modern democracy.
A referendum law like this one is, in this context, a political tool to subvert democracy, a concept that is not synonymous with majority rule.
Supporters of the referendum are sure to point out that similar ideas have been put forth by Palestinian factions. That, too, is problematic, but the question of the legitimacy of both the governments in Ramallah and Gaza make a Palestinian referendum a different situation. The Israeli government is clearly empowered to make a deal, and political forces exist to influence it. The current condition of the PA and the PLO (which remains the only recognized body charged with negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians, but its mandate, at this point, is shaky at best) is such that neither has a clear mandate to represent the Palestinian people.
Still, in both cases, the idea of a referendum is troublesome. Any deal truly unacceptable to the populace won’t last anyway, but referendums leave the whole diplomatic process open to political demagoguery.
That’s a matter of principle. In practice, history has shown that Israeli leaders, when they’ve needed to sell a deal, always face an oppositional public, and, when they mean it, have been able to turn that public opinion around. In part, that happened, most notably after Camp David I, because the Israeli people recognized that peace was working out for them. This law prevents that process from happening.
In the end, a law that enables populist fear-mongers to torpedo peace is suicidally stupid. And this one, which puts a vote that affects all in the hands of only some, is also discriminatory and anti-democratic.
As I said, remember the date. It’s one that will live in infamy.