Israeli Referendum on 2 State Solution?

Categories: Israel, Letters From Leadership, Two States
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Ameinu is a strong supporter of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it does not currently have a position on whether Israel should hold a referendum on the future of the occupied territories.  Some elements of the Israeli peace movement are promoting such an initiative (Ben Caspit wrote on this in his column for al-Monitor). They want the referendum to coincide with next year’s 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the beginning of the occupation.  This post lays out two opposed views from within Ameinu’s ranks:

Prof. Mira Sucharov of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, has published a negative perspective in The Forward (“A Referendum on Israeli Occupation Is Not Just Risky — It’s Wrong“), from which the following is drawn:

. . .  Blue White Future and Peace Now — have partnered, along with others, to help launch “Decision at 50.” This project urges the Israeli government to hold a nation-wide referendum on the future of the West Bank.

. . .  While the exact question has not yet been formulated, the group’s website suggests it will ask Israelis “whether Israel’s vision includes one state between the river and the sea or a two state solution.” . . .

Any public reckoning around the occupation is a good thing, and Israel’s peace movement is by definition opposed to permanent rule over the Palestinians. But politics and morality suggest that this initiative is both risky and wrong.

It’s risky because it’s not clear that Israelis prefer a two-state solution over a continuation of the status quo. There is still an Israeli majority in favor of a two-state solution, but it’s not a very strong majority. A poll from last month found that 59% of Israelis support such a political arrangement, but only 46% support the type of two-state arrangement suggested by previous rounds of negotiations. And most troubling is an April 2016 poll that found that 72% of Israelis don’t believe that Israel’s control over the West Bank even constitutes an “occupation.”

And it’s risky because without precise wording at this juncture, Israelis are likely to associate the movement with unilateralism. Israelis are loath to consider unilateralism, something that has not served Israel well in Gaza.  . . .

It would be bad enough if it was merely risky. But Decision at 50 is also wrong. It’s wrong because the idea of a referendum on the fate of West Bank Palestinians suggests that this fate is Israelis’ to decide. Palestinians are under a military occupation — which was supposed to be temporary — run by a military directed by a government for whom these Palestinians don’t get to vote.  . . .

Americans for Peace Now has followed the lead of Israel’s Peace Now (Shalom Achshav) organization to endorse the idea.  On a listserv of scholars and activists allied with Ameinu, Dan Fleshler (a board member of Ameinu and APN) acknowledged the problems pointed out by Prof. Sucharov. But he supported the referendum idea in the absence of a clearly better alternative:

While I share some of the concerns raised by Mira and others, I believe the Decision at 50 initiative (“D at 50”) has merits.

Yes, Mira, there are considerable “risks” involved in pushing for a referendum.  The people behind this initiative understand those risks very well.  But what’s the alternative, besides the unacceptable status quo?  The only other alternative I’m aware of is to galvanize groups on the increasingly marginalized left and center-left in Israel. Unfortunately, their “brand” — our brand, MY brand — is tarnished.

What distinguishes D at 50 is that it is meant to be a political organizing tool that could enlist centrists who support a two state solution.  I’ve been told Peace Now will try to stay in the background because of the “brand” issue I just mentioned. A public campaign to prod Israel’s political establishment to agree to a referendum could conceivably expand the peace camp. It could provide moderates who would prefer to end the occupation with a concrete mechanism to make their views known.  My Israeli relatives are Dan Meridor supporters who would never vote for Labor or Meretz.  They’re not going to attend a demo in Tel Aviv. But they might be in favor of putting the question to the Israeli public in the form of a referendum. A campaign to make it happen could prompt a conversation that has a bit more urgency and political relevance than predictable messages about the dire consequences of continued occupation, which will be heard as the 50th anniversary approaches.

Now, I think it’s very unlikely that the Israeli government will agree to a referendum. But, in case I’m wrong and the campaign works, the government of Israel will be confronted with a clear mandate to negotiate a two state solution. Whoever is in power will have to justify ignoring the will of the people if he or she ignores that mandate. If it doesn’t work, will Israel/Palestine be in a worse situation than they are in right now?

I shared some of the concerns expressed in this group with Shalom Achshav. Here are a few of their responses:

  • “Polls do show that what was in the past a robust majority in the Israeli public in favor of a two-state solution is now a smaller majority. However, polls also show that there is a small minority supporting the alternatives: annexation, a bi-national state.”
  • “Regarding the question of not involving the Palestinians in deciding on their future, several issues: (A) it is unrealistic to expect the government of Israel to include the Palestinians in a referendum. (B) The focus of the initiative is to first have Israel decide what it wants, what its policy and vision is. because Israel rules the Territories and the Palestinians who inhabit them. Israel must first decide what IT wants, what its objective is regarding the Territories, and then negotiate it with the Palestinians. (C) The objective of the referendum is not to impose an Israeli decision on the Palestinians – we’re not talking unilateralism — but rather for an Israeli government to come to the Palestinians – hopefully – with a mandate from the Israeli public to negotiate a two-state solution, and negotiate the details of that solution with the Palestinian leadership. (D) Unlike the government of Israel, the PLO does have an official policy. It has endorsed the two-state solution, and it pursues it.”
  • “The referendum is not only on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip but also (or maybe even more so) on the future character of Israel.”

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