Referendum on peace: Plenty of posturing but no change in law

Any deal that involves ceding territory Israel claims as its own already requires the people’s input; so why is Bennett threatening to collapse the government?

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset plenum, Monday, July 22, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset plenum, Monday, July 22, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

Earlier this week, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett threatened to collapse the government.

If the coalition’s Knesset majority failed to advance — not pass, just push past its first reading — a bill that would create a constitutional Basic Law mandating a referendum on any peace deal with the Palestinians, the Jewish Home party would vote against the budget and precipitate the downfall of the current government.

Bennett’s posturing caught his coalition partners by surprise. For one thing, Bennett would be foolish to force the collapse of the government so soon after an election over such a trivial issue. For another, the government, including the prime minister, openly supports anchoring the requirement for a referendum in a basic law. Bennett is charging into an open door.

Perhaps to emphasize the point, Netanyahu told reporters in the Knesset on Monday evening that he’s “been saying for years that any diplomatic solution, if one is achieved, must be brought to a referendum.”

“A national referendum prevents national division,” he added. “Peace with our neighbors requires peace among ourselves, and that’s achieved through a referendum.”

Netanyahu promised to bring the referendum bill to the Knesset as a government-sponsored bill, allowing it to bypass some procedural hurdles, such as the preliminary reading, and guaranteeing it a majority in the plenum.

Yet Netanyahu knows better than anyone that the bill will change nothing.

After all, it’s already the law of the land that a government that wishes to surrender territory over which it has claimed sovereignty (i.e., the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and presumably other areas in the framework of any foreseeable land swap) must put the agreement to a national referendum. That law was passed in 2010 by a huge majority of 66 to 33.

(It is worth noting that the law, as it stands, does not mandate a referendum in all cases. Any agreement that wins the support of 80 MKs is approved without one.)

MKs advancing the new bill, which would make the demand for a referendum a full-fledged Basic Law, claim it is meant to head off interference by the High Court of Justice, which, they say, has been considering the constitutionality of the existing law. By anchoring it in a Basic Law, MKs would be establishing the referendum as part of what currently passes for Israel’s constitution.

The fight is not between Bennett and Netanyahu — the chief sponsor of the bill is Netanyahu’s own coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud) — but, at least in the minds of MKs, between the legislative branch and the judiciary.

On Bennett’s belligerence

That, at least, explains the bill’s raison d’etre, but it doesn’t explain Bennett’s belligerence. Why would a senior coalition partner openly threaten the government’s survival over a bill whose ultimate passage is all but certain, and which would not actually change the existing legal situation?

The answer lies in the legislative grand bargain on which the current coalition depends.

Four of the five parties in the coalition are concluding the current Knesset’s first session (which ends next Wednesday) with a dramatic legislative or political success. Yesh Atid has the Shared Burden Bill that passed its first reading Monday. Yisrael Beytenu is advancing its governance bill to a first reading, likely at the start of next week. Likud has already signed into law a promised change to the daylight savings schedule and a reform of Israel’s ports that is expected to drive down the cost of consumer goods. Hatnua is running the newly relaunched negotiations with the Palestinians, thereby both fulfilling an election promise and garnering consistent Page 1 visibility for the duration of the talks.

Only Jewish Home has struggled to find a legislative success to match its coalition partners.

It is that sense of falling behind that drove Bennett to couch his demand as a threat to the stability of the coalition. In the referendum bill, Bennett believes he has an easy, high-publicity legislative target. It is, after all, one of two bills promised to Jewish Home in its coalition agreement with Likud-Beytenu. (The other is the Basic Law: Jewish Nation-State.)

If the basic law can pass its first reading by next Wednesday, Bennett will have a success as great as any of his coalition partners.

Ironically, if Bennett is able, with Netanyahu’s unstinting support, to advance the bill before the end of the session, the coalition will go to recess much more stable that it was at the start of the term. Jewish Home, Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid will all go to recess with critical pieces of legislation not yet passed. None would dream of facing their voters again without passing their signature initiatives into law.

A majority of one Mitsubishi

While the rhetoric and timing of the referendum bill are largely due to momentary political considerations, it is important not to underestimate the importance of the idea of a referendum for the right. The political impulse behind both the 2010 law and the current bill have been described by the left-leaning media as a petulant attempt to place procedural hurdles before any peace deal. There is a grain of truth in that claim, but no more than a grain.

In fact, the idea of a referendum has played an almost mythical role in the political imagination of the Israeli right ever since then-opposition leader Menachem Begin called for one over Israel’s decision to accept German reparation funds in the 1950s.

The idea again became central to the political agenda of the right in the wake of the October 1995 passage of the second phase of the Oslo agreements by a single-vote majority in the Knesset.

Just a few months earlier, opposition MKs Gonen Segev and Alex Goldfarb — part of a group of MKs that splintered off of the right-wing Tzomet party — were lured into joining the coalition through offers of ministerial posts. In January 1995 Segev was appointed minister of energy, while Goldfarb was named deputy housing minister. That October, the two cast the deciding votes and the Oslo deal passed by a one-MK majority.

To this day, right-wing parliamentarians talk cynically about a peace agreement that passed “by a majority of one Mitsubishi” — a reference to the luxury Japanese sedan given to Goldfarb as a deputy minister.

It didn’t help that Segev was later imprisoned for drug smuggling.

Approved by such a narrow vote, and especially after the collapse of peace talks in a blaze of terror attacks at the end of 2000, the right wing came to see the Oslo peace process as a dangerous political gamble that was foisted on an unwilling populace by scheming, immoral politicians.

As one right-wing coalition MK said Monday when asked if the referendum wasn’t an obstacle to a peace deal, “I don’t know if it’s an obstacle, but it will prevent the buying of votes in the Knesset to pass the agreement. And it forces the prime minister to bring us a much better agreement, one the public will be able to live with. For example, I don’t believe [the public] will allow the surrender of parts of Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu’s support for a referendum is not tactical; it lies at the heart of his critique of the failures of past peace talks. When he said on Monday that “a national referendum prevents national division,” that, too, was no mere platitude. The memory of standing on the other side of that divide during the last meaningful peace talks has not dissipated.

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