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Israel already held a referendum long ago

By Ariel Natan Pasko
web posted January 17, 2005

Israel is a strange place, a democracy in form, but weak in content. Of course, a statement like that is made when comparing Israel to the US, Europe, and a handful of other countries. In comparison to much of the world, Israel shines as a paradigm of democratic self-rule, notice that Israel has a new government today.

The "Palestinians" aren't the only ones who can play "democracy".

The idea of representative government is firmly rooted in Israel. In fact, so much so, that the "people's representatives" don't want the people, to decide for themselves a question of historic magnitude. Rather than go to new elections or hold a referendum about his Gaza expulsion plan, Prime Minister Sharon has formed a coalition with the party that lost the last election, Labor, adopting it's policies in the process. Those are the policies that most Israelis rejected at the polls a couple years ago, I might add.

Many of the "people's representatives" have come out against the idea of holding a referendum over the Gaza transfer proposal of Sharon, some claiming it to be "anti-democratic," others for "practical" reasons.

When one takes into account that Members of the Knesset -- Israel's parliament -- are not elected in constituent elections to districts, responsible to a certain group of voters, but through national party lists, one can ask, whom do they represent beyond the party or themselves?

When Sharon first announced his expulsion plan last year, the then-Minister of National Infrastructure, Yosef Paritzky (then of the Shinui Party) spoke out against a national referendum on the removal of the Jews from Gaza and it's transfer of land to the Palestinians, claiming it contravenes the democratic principles of the country.

It's legitimate to ask, whom did he represent?

Paritzky stated that the cabinet or Knesset must not unload the responsibility of making pivotal decisions; decisions that parliamentarians were elected to make. Paritzky's democratic idea, quite common in Israel, is that one elects someone to be in charge, and then they do as they please. With no feedback loops, no responsibility to constituents, little accountability beyond toward the party, the "people" have to wait four years to decide if they were happy or not with their elected officials performance. There is no recall vote, like was held in California last year; and no personal election of parliamentarians to represent a particular group of voters in a given district, who can later "dump the bum."

Paritzky's then colleague in Shinui, the then Justice Minister and now leader of the opposition, Yosef Lapid, also expressed his opposition to the referendum idea, stating such a move is not part of our democratic process. And both politicians have a point; modern Israel never has held a referendum.

Yet others, Uzi Landau and the Likud loyalists who have been opposing Sharon's Gaza/Northern Samaria plan for quite some time now, have been calling on Sharon to hold a referendum. Even Netanyahu -- who voted for "Disengagement" -- raised his voice for a referendum. Recently, the leaders of the Yesha Settlers Council (the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza) began calling for a referendum, when all "political" means (within Likud's Central Committee) seemed to fail to stop Sharon's plans. Many argue that the democratic legitimization of a referendum outcome would help to minimize the likelihood of civil war breaking out in Israel.

But Sharon has stonewalled them all, refusing to give in. Now he's put together his "Expulsion Government" of Labor, United Torah Judaism (how could they do this?) and part of Likud. Sharon needed the far-left Yahad party and the vote of two Arab MKs to pass his coalition, 58-56, in the Knesset.

About referenda in Israel...

Menachem Begin

Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin -- then a Knesset member -- in the early 1950's opposed the deal that then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion worked out with West Germany, to accept reparations after the Holocaust. Begin suggested a national referendum to allow the people to decide whether to accept them or not, but Ben-Gurion refused. In February 1958, Menachem Begin again suggested using referenda to decide on various issues in the young Israeli democracy. Ben-Gurion's ruling party, Mapai, responded, calling the proposal "Bonapartist, fascist and totalitarian."

Certainly, referenda are neither fascist nor totalitarian. They are used in many democratic states around the world to allow the citizens to directly decide important issues. For example, referenda have been used by European countries to decide on whether to join the European Union, or once in, to adopt the European Monetary System and replace their national currency with the Euro. Many states in the US use referenda for a whole host of issues, and the constitutional process of adopting a new state constitution itself can include a referendum from voters.

Is there a more important issue today, pressing the people of Israel, than the issue of territorial integrity or withdrawal from parts of it's historic homeland, the biblically promised, Land of Israel?

But in all truth, Israel has in fact held a referendum already on this issue.

In the Torah, after the story describing the giving of the 10 commandments comes the portion of Mishpatim-Laws (Exodus 21:1-24:18). In it, Moses conveys a long list of further rules and regulations -- G-D's commands -- for the Children of Israel to live by, including torts and damages, criminal law, marital law and ritual law, the proscription against idolatry and the proper observance of Jewish holidays. Then comes the promise -- by G-D -- of military victory in the upcoming war; to bring the people into the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give it to Israel.

"Do not make a treaty with these nations..." (Exodus 23:32)

"Do not allow them to reside in your land..." (Exodus 23:33)

It continues, "Moses wrote down all G-D's words" (Exodus 24:4), then "He took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people. They replied, 'Everything G-D declared, -- Naaseh V'Nishmah -- we will do and obey'" (Exodus 24:7).

There you have it, the description of the covenantal process between G-D and the Jewish People, with the Jews adopting the Torah as their constitution, by national referendum.

So, it's not true that Israel has "never" held a referendum. But when the Jews voted to accept the Torah-Constitution for their nation, and implemented the "promise to inherit the land" in the times of Joshua, they set down rules for the nation for "all time".

Everyone in the world knows that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish People. Christianity and Islam are built on Judaism and both recognize this fact. The nations of the world, through the League of Nations and later the United Nations gave its stamp of approval -- after the fact -- also.

The use of referenda to generally resolve issues in Israel is perfectly democratic, it builds social solidarity and wide consensus, contrary to the views of the "people's representatives". But on the issue of territorial compromise and expulsion of Jews from their homes -- such as the Gaza/Northern Samaria question -- something that gets to the heart of Israel's national existence, even democracy has it's limits.

How many Americans would honor the outcome of a referendum in the US, to return the "Occupied Territories" to Native American Indians, along with the concomitant expulsion of millions of black, white, and Hispanic "settlers"?

There is no legitimacy to such a referendum, the nation of Israel voted on it long ago, at Mt. Sinai.

Ariel Natan Pasko is an independent analyst & consultant. He has a Master's Degree in International Relations & Policy Analysis. His articles appear regularly on numerous news/views and think-tank websites, in newspapers, and can be read at: www.geocities.com/ariel_natan_pasko (c) 2005/5765 Pasko


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