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Israel has already held a referendum

By Ariel Natan Pasko
web posted February 23, 2004

Israel is a strange place, a democracy in form, but weak in content. Of course, a statement like that is made 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. 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. Many of the "people's representatives" have come out against the idea of holding a referendum over the Gaza transfer proposal of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel 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?

So, when Minister of National Infrastructure Yosef Paritzky -- of the so-called middle class Shinui Party -- spoke out against a national referendum on the removal of the Jews from Gaza and it's total transfer to the Palestinians, claiming it contravenes the democratic principles of the country, it's legitimate to ask, who does 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 recently held in California; 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 colleague in Shinui, Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid also expressed 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.

Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin -- then a Knesset member -- in the early 1950s 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 question -- something that gets to the heart of Israel's national existence...

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

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) 2004/5764 Pasko

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