As Israelis and Palestinians drift toward direct peace talks under the orchestration of US Secretary of State John Kerry, leaders from both sides have called for national plebiscites to approve any final status agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is attempting to rush forward with a referendum bill ahead of talks with the Palestinians. Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett insisted that a referendum be included in the coalition agreement at the end of the 2013 Israeli elections and, more recently, has threatened to hold up passage of the state budget if a referendum was not guaranteed. On the Palestinian side, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that he may put approval of a peace treaty to Palestinian voters. Despite their profound differences, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are seemingly finding common ground in their pursuit of the “referendum gambit” to avoid making decisions that might undermine their hold on political power.
In the past, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have contemplated national referendums to settle fundamental questions within their respective communities. While Palestinian President Yasser Arafat never publically considered the possibility of a national plebiscite, Abbas has occasionally hinted at referendums to decide internal Palestinian political struggles. Israeli leaders, on the other hand, have a long history of supporting the idea that the consent of its citizens is necessary to approve peace agreements.
Referendums in Palestinian Politics
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated support for national referendums twice throughout his term.
- 2006 In the aftermath of the 2006 Palestinian elections, Abbas called for a referendum on the so-called Prisoners’ Document, which advocated reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and outlined principles for a future peace with Israel.
- 2008 Abbas challenged Hamas to new elections or a referendum in the aftermath of a drawn-out political and military struggle for control of the Palestinian Authority, which left Hamas effectively in command of the Gaza Strip and Fatah in command of the West Bank.
Until this week’s call for a referendum, Abbas had only threatened a national plebiscite to deal with internal Palestinian politics; namely a struggle for power with Hamas in which Abbas believed his odds for success were improved. The call for a referendum on a peace treaty with Israel is troubling in that it may suggest that Abbas does not believe he has the strength to make the agreement stick or to thwart any potential Hamas-led rejectionism. Ultimately, despite occasional threats to resign, Abbas intends to remain President of the Palestine; if he senses that a peace agreement may jeopardize his chances to preserve his position, then it makes sense to seek political cover through a referendum.
Referendums in Israeli Politics
While the idea of a national referendum on a peace agreement is a relatively new idea in Palestine, in Israel there is a long history to the idea that a public referendum would be necessary to approve any future peace agreement that necessitated territorial concessions. Despite an existing legal framework to facilitate such a vote, Israel’s political leaders regularly contemplated a national referendum on peace deals throughout the 1990s.
- 1994 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin proposed a national plebiscite as Israel entered into negotiations with Syria and the prospects of returning the Golan Heights became increasingly real.
- 1996 Prime Minister Shimon Peres, during a close and contentious campaign against Binyamin Netanyahu, called for a referendum on any peace agreement with the Palestinians in attempt to win over swing voters.
- 1998 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu considered a national referendum in order to proceed with Israeli withdraws from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as outlined in the Olso Accords.
- 1999 Prime Minister Ehud Barak supported the possibility of a referendum in the Syrian negotiations as well as with the Palestinians.
During the 2005 Gaza Disengagement, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke with this tradition by explicitly refusing to submit his withdraw plan to a public vote. With calls from senior members of his Likud party demanding a referendum, Sharon chose instead to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections. Sharon’s incapacitation due to a series of strokes during the election campaign led to
In the fall of 2010, Israeli MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) proposed a bill requiring a national referendum on any future peace agreement with the Palestinians that required an Israeli withdraw from territories in the West Bank. While this particular bill failed to become law, a second bill that required both a majority vote of the Knesset as well as a public referendum on Israeli withdraw from the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem did win Knesset approval on November 23, 2010 on a 65-33 vote in the body. Despite the failure of Israel rightists to create a comprehensive system of Israeli public approval future peace deals, the 2010 referendum set the stage for future attempts.
In the aftermath of the 2013 Israeli elections, the idea of a referendum on peace with Palestinians became entangled in coalition negotiations, with Habayit Hayehudi insisting that a provision for such be included in their coalition agreement with Likud – Yisrael Beiteinu. In late April 2013, MK Yariv Levin (Likud) submitted a revised version of the Akunis bill for consideration by the Knesset. Like the 2010 bill, this attempt to impose a national referendum on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was thwarted in the Knesset. Specifically, the indication that Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid would not support a referendum effectively halted any further consideration of the bill. However, three short months later, as negotiations with Palestinians became a realistic possibility, Lapid changed his position and embraced possibility of a national referendum. Despite growing public support for a referendum in Israel, several leaders, including Tzipi Livni, Shelley Yachimovich, Avigdor Lieberman and Zehava Gal-On, have criticized the calls for a plebiscite as a shirking of the duties and responsibilities by elected leaders.
The Referendum Gambit
In Israel as in Palestine, referendums are often threatened but never acted upon. To date, neither Palestinians nor Israelis have voted in such a referendum and, because of this, the referendum must be viewed as a sort political cudgel used to gain advantage in moments of potential crisis. If history is any indicator of what will happen with the most recent calls for plebiscites in Israel and Palestine, then we can all rest assured that such a vote will never take place and we that are witnessing little more than political posturing and the melodramatic theatrics of politicians who believe their power may be jeopardized as the region staggers toward peace talks that may fundamentally shatter the status quo. Yet by the same token, if past behavior is believed to dictate future performance, then there is little reason to be optimistic that these latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will bear significant results.