Thursday, February 03, 2005


Disengagement Referendum

There are two articles on a possible referendum on Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan in today's Ha'aretz. A referendum has long been a topic of discussion. It has been supported from voices both on the left and on the right. On the left, it is seen as a way that the "silent majority," which has expressed in previous public opinion polls a certain level of distaste and lack of support for the settlement enterprise, can speak and shout down the vocal minority of settlers and settlement advocates. It is viewed by the "moderate" right (those in the Sharon camp and even some opposed to disengagement) as a way that they can deflect anger and blame for moving settlers out of the Gaza Strip away from themselves and onto the "liberal public." They can shirk responsibility, explaining that they were bound by the chains of democracy. However, there are voices on the extreme right (in the YESHA council and among settler leaders) that while a decision by the government to move settlers out of the Gaza Strip will be resisted tooth and nail, a referendum voted on by the Israeli public would be a means by which they would resist less vehemently their transfer.

The first article suggests that the "silent majority" may continue to stay silent, referendum or no. In a general study on referendums, a Hebrew University study showed that the public generally votes to maintain the status quo (in this case, keeping settlements in Gaza).
In a study of 26 national referendums held in 26 democratic countries, Moshinsky found that when a public vote was held to approve existing policy, it won between 80 percent and 85 percent of the votes. However, in cases in which a change in policy was up for decision, the results show that the approval rate was about 50 percent or lower.

The 50-percent rate holds true even if the government is sure of its chances of gaining approval of its policy via the referendum process, Moshinsky found.

That's because when people are required to make important decisions regarding changes in an existing situation, they tend to give greater weight to possible losses than potential gains, she found.

A Haaretz-Dialogue poll from mid-January showed that 59 percent of the population, particularly voters from the left and center, supports the disengagement plan.
Given actions on the ground (especially if violence in Gaza happens to flare up in a way that catches the public eye in Israel) between now and a possible referendum, that 59 percent may begin to crumble.

The second article is an op-ed by Yitzhak Laor. Yitzhak Laor is an outspoken critic of the Israeli right, but is often just as critical of the ineffectual Israeli left. In it, he argues from the assertion that the settlers who are now pushing for a referendum believe that they will lose (which, as the article above suggests, may not necessarily be the case). Laor argues that the referendum itself, no matter the results, will be structurally damaging to democracy and the pro-democratic left in Israel. This is the case, he argues, because it will institutionalize the Israeli public's right to decide the fate of the occupied territories.
Moreover, a referendum on the future of the occupied territories that is not held among the Palestinians - the only legal residents of the territories - not only makes a mockery of democracy, and not only from the perspective of international law, but also from the perspective of Israeli law. A referendum of Jews on the future of the Palestinian territories grants a legal seal of approval to the existing de facto state of apartheid in the territories. Why are the settlers so eager to conduct a referendum that they would clearly lose? Because this type of referendum, which requires a legislative process, would give legal validity to apartheid.
The change is not that Israelis would be making decisions that impact Palestinians; this is already the case. However, the referendum would put the onus on the Israeli left (not only those in government positions, but the broader public left) to accept that, indeed encourage it. Thus, what some on the Israeli left may view as salvation is only an opportunity to delve deeper into damnation.

Isn't it interesting that recourse to referenda is a sign of degenerate democracy? I hadn't thought about how referenda function as a sort of vote of confidence in the existing policy, without the safety net of an established mechanism for dealing with a no vote. I can see why people would tend to vote against the referenda even if supporting its position, simply because they would not know how the result would effect action.

I also think there is something else at play in this particular referendum. It would be rather like putting staying in Iraq to a popular vote in the US, don't you think? Many people who are uneasy or downright unhappy with the presence of US forces in Iraq would still not vote yes to a referendum calling for withdrawal.

This explains to some degree why people voted for Bush, again, I think. They don't like staying in Iraq, but they are afraid of voting directly for withdrawal. They vote for someone who they hope has a plan, even when the evidence is clear that either he has no plan or that his plan is insane, in part because they are afraid of deciding for themselves, afraid of taking responsibility. The way democracy works in this country has had the unfortunate effect of making people think of their vote as an act of revenge or repudiation. It could be that the same thing has happened or is happening in Israel. It helps when the people in power are always stirring racial antagonisms and religious fanaticism.
Oops, forgot to sign my post above --

Aunt Deb
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