Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is the Golan Referendum Law Simply to Save Political Lives

The Knesset has recently voted to advance legislation that would make the handover of any land under Israeli sovereignty (i.e. Israel proper or annexed land--such as parts of Jerusalem and the Golan heights) subject to an Israel-wide plebiscite.

The bill, which is not yet law but has merely passed its first reading has several hurdles to clear before it becomes binding legislation, but it is already being discussed and receiving criticism and praise in some quarters as though it is. Those who support the bill (and that includes the majority of the Knesset) are happy that the final decision of renouncing territory are placed in the hands of citizens and not the elected officials and note that the possibility of corruption or bribery is removed.

Those who oppose the bill note that it is superfluous. They argue that the reason a parliament exists is to make exactly these sorts of decisions. They also make the point that internationally, it appears as though Israel is creating obstacles for itself and is tying its own hands when it comes to making peace.

Residents of the Golan are confident that the rest of Israel would never vote the territory away and so any referendum would only confirm what they know. Syria makes the point that Israel has no right to vote on giving back something that was never theirs to hold. For their part, Israeli commentators suggest that the bill itself is a clever signal to Syria and the Palestinians that they had better make a deal fast, before the law requires a referendum for ratification, or they could see their chances at a generous offer, which may be unpopular in Israel, slip away.

It is very difficult to see what good could come from legislation such as this. The whole thing stinks. A government is elected to make difficult decisions, it is elected with a mandate to handle issues such as this. There is something very suspicious about a government saying that now, of all the issues it decides on, this one will require the whole population to vote. It would be less suspicious if the law in Israel were that all treaties were subject to a referendum for ratification. They are not. The peace with Egypt and the Oslo agreement were not subject to voting either. It's true that no territory that had been annexed was handed over in these agreements, but the Golan heights and Jerusalem were each captured in a war and so should not have been annexed anyway.

It's also worth noting that for both Oslo and Egypt, the image behind the peace lost their lives (Nasser and Rabin.) Perhaps that reality is what motivates this Knesset. Perhaps the motive has nothing to do with international relations or with wanting peace or not. Maybe the real concern is fear, fear at having the legacy of seceding 'Israeli soil' and being held responsible for it. With a referendum, politicians may have little role at all in the final agreement. Negotiators (who will likely be high ranking bureaucrats) will hammer out a deal, the public will vote on it, and the politicians will rubber stamp the whole thing. This is the ideal way to avoid the responsibilities associated with leadership.

The correct response to this ought to be simply: "too bad." Representatives are elected to lead and to represent. If the above analysis is at all correct, and avoidance of real responsibility is the reason behind this bill, then the Knesset should resign and let someone made of tougher stuff take the mantle.

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