The Knesset's New Referendum Bill: Dangerous Populism

08/12/2010 11:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ir Amim The Ir Amim blog seeks to establish a vibrant and open meeting space to discuss Jerusalem

The Knesset Comittee's decision to pass its second and third Referendum Bill, which would condition any withdrawal from East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights on both a public referendum and special majority in Knesset, is populism of the most dangerous kind.

Supposedly, it is the most democratic decision; to pass highly important decisions to the people and to leave it to the majority to decide. However, there is room to wonder why the Knesset would undermine its own authority as the elected legislative arm of the government. This raises several questions which need to be addressed before its approval.

First, assuming it's not the intention of the Knesset to encourage an uneducated decision on such an important matter, does the Knesset intend to bring to the public knowledge all of the relevant issues that will be affected by this decision? And if so in what way? When it comes to East Jerusalem, it's doubtful that the members of Knesset themselves know exactly what's at stake, or the alternatives which face the city in light of economic, demographic and security issues, or even the borders of the Eastern part of the city. How, if at all, will the public make a decision in this information vacuum?

Secondly, if and when the question of withdrawal comes about, it will only be one item in a comprehensive political agreement to aiming to settle all aspects of the conflict. To isolate this issue and bring it to public referendum detached from the broader political context is to uproot it of all meaning. In practice, this is a set-up to turn the public discussion of this issue into a circus of slogans and emotional blackmail, which is unfortunately what generally happens, especially regarding anything connected to the future of Jerusalem.

Those who favor the bill claim that decisions exceeding 'normal' legislation must be ratified directly by the public. And yet it's interesting to note that when decisions no less meaningful come before the public, the Knesset does not demonstrate similar integrity by turning to the public. One such example is their rejection of the proposal to raise minimum wage, which would affect far more citizens than separating from East Jerusalem. Thus, one might suspect that behind this legislation there is another drive: to limit the possibilities of a future agreement and obstruct it from materializing, and not only the noble democratic vision.

This government, we need to remember, was established on the foundation of its commitment to a two-state solution, which ultimately entails a compromise regarding East Jerusalem. If the current Knesset is determined to strip from the outset all the possibilities of any tangible solution to emerge, better to say so fully from the outset and save the public another cycle of hope and despair. The Israeli public has already spoken in the elections: the current question is whether the Knesset will muster the courage and integrity to deliver the goods for which it was elected.

By Orly Noy