The left could win a referendum

Published in Haaretz

Naftali Bennett plans to push forward a law requiring that any future negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians be brought to a national referendum before being ratified by the Knesset. The Habayit Hayehudi chairman and Economics and Trade Minister claims that such an agreement would be so far-reaching that Israeli citizens should be given the chance to come together to directly endorse or reject it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actively supports the referendum idea and Finance Minister Yair Lapid is debating what to do.

Bennett is pushing the referendum because he wants to sabotage the negotiation process. Bennett doesn’t believe in a two-state solution and he opposes a Palestinian state, which he fears will be dysfunctional and hostile to Israel – not unreasonable concerns. Bennett does not want to give up settlements. His alternative to the status quo of settlement expansion is annexation of much of the West Bank, which most Israelis oppose and the rest of the world would condemn.

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The best proof that a referendum hinders peace prospects is that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the most vocal opponent of Bennett’s plan, promoted the same idea when she was a young Likud minister trying to prevent negotiations from moving forward. She has since changed her position on both fronts. In addition to arguing that the nation just held a referendum in the January elections, Livni believes that rather than uniting the people, as Bennett claims, a referendum will tear Israelis apart.

It’s a tough call. In an ideal world, we would want Israel’s Jewish population to buy into a final status agreement, presuming our Palestinian citizens would be in favor of an agreement. The best outcome would be a proposal compelling enough to win over the hearts and minds of the nation.

But Israel has not really developed effective means for its citizens to participate in the democratic process outside of casting their ballots or lobbying Knesset members, so a referendum is likely to serve as an invitation to polarization, with those for and against retreating to their corners. A simple yes/no decision will favor extremism, as Livni suggests, encouraging the two sides to make their positions appear as antithetical as possible. Rather than a nuanced public discourse of depth, we will have competing slogans and demonization.

The nationalist camp has major advantages. Propaganda campaigns are organized around the manipulation of emotions, and they will be able to manipulate negative emotions – suspicion, anxiety, fear and hate – that tend to be the most potent in voting campaigns. Negative emotions usually trump positive emotions, such as hope, or longing for justice. This is particularly so if the positive emotions are connected to issues more removed from people’s daily lives messages – End the unjust Occupation, take a chance for peace, reverse Israel’s international isolation – while the negative emotions can be rooted in specific and concrete threats – there will be more terrorist attacks, they want to destroy Israel. Most Israelis worry more about their family members being hurt than about Israel’s standing in the world or the rights of Palestinians.

The anti-two-state-solution camp will have a core of activists, with very strong ties to the issue, who are passionate about not making concessions to the Palestinians, who see their own homes under threat or consider the settlement enterprise the focus of their lives. The pro-agreement camp will have the majority of Israel’s Jewish and Arab population, according to consistent polling, but most of those people have weaker ties to the issue; it is not the central issue in their lives, and their commitment is tempered by stronger doses of ambivalence.

Because we know Bennett’s agenda, it is tempting to retreat to our leftist corner and focus exclusively on the ends (peace, ending or at least transforming the Occupation, taking down settlements) rather than on the means (strengthening participatory democracy, changing hearts and minds, uniting the Jewish majority to back an agreement) and fight the referendum idea. Perhaps we made this mistake when we didn’t actively oppose Ariel Sharon’s strong-arming his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza through the Knesset, and we have been paying the price ever since, both in missile attacks and rhetorical revisionism.

What would it take to win a referendum? The target of persuasion efforts will move from the Knesset to the public; there will be competing demonstrations in any scenario, but rather than lobbying and personal pressure on 120 Knesset members, there will be mass advertising campaigns, attempts to manipulate the media and nationwide outreach through public forums.

The pro-resolution camp will have to mount a vigorous and coordinated persuasion campaign to offset the propaganda of the right. Compelling refutations will be needed to counter the claims of the nationalists that the two-state solution is dead and that it is impossible to evacuate settlers. We will need to directly address the fears that Israel will become more vulnerable and that Palestinian violence will escalate, and explain what to do about Hamas in Gaza. We will need security arguments rooted in our painful reality, not images of doves soaring overhead. We will also have to raise money – a lot of money – because the right wing is extremely well-funded, and we will have to work in concert as the nationalist camp has learned to do.

And we will have to expand our circle of partners, which will demand that we change our discourse and not vilify citizens who have doubts or fears. We will need to find ways to win over centrists and ultra-Orthodox citizens who favor a negotiated end to the conflict but flee from causes identified exclusively with the left. We will have to lay the groundwork now, even as negotiations – let alone the proposed agreement – seem a remote possibility, much less a proposal about which to conduct a referendum. The nationalist camp has spent years building a network of institutions to indoctrinate its young and inculcate its messages into all segments of Israeli society. The left has struggled to respond.

To conclude this exercise in virtual reality, I believe that if a resolution to the conflict seemed like a viable prospect, many outside leftist circles would overcome their disappointment and anger over past peace efforts and choose to take risks for a more hopeful future and an Israel no longer scarred by the Occupation. Representative democracy does not require a referendum, but we’d better get ready now in case one is placed in our path.

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