Palestinians, Israelis Deride Possible Referendum Proposal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the Israeli public to decide on the next redeployment of troops from the West Bank.

But the plan to hold a national referendum has already prompted sharp criticism from the Palestinian Authority and from the Israeli opposition — and even ridicule from Netanyahu’s own defense minister.

Israel has been under pressure for months to carry out a 13 percent further redeployment in the West Bank as part of an American compromise proposal aimed at breaking a deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Recent polls have indicated that a referendum would show a majority of Israelis support such a redeployment, and would counter threats by far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition to bring down the government if any more territory is transferred to Palestinian control.

Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said this week that he would recommend holding a non-binding referendum on the issue.

“This also has weight, the government cannot ignore its results,” he said. Hanegbi announced his intentions after consulting with legal advisers and other Cabinet members on the matter.

Hanegbi said a referendum, if held, could be organized in about two months.

However, Palestinian officials accused the prime minister of using the referendum as another attempt to delay carrying out a further redeployment.

Ahmed Abdel Rahman, secretary-general of the Palestinian Authority, termed the idea a violation of the “spirit and letter of the agreements” between Israel and the Palestinians.

The concept of turning to the public in an advisory capacity also drew reservations — and ridicule — from some coalition and opposition members.

“I don’t know what a national referendum is, how it is done, over what period of time, what it costs, what is needed,” Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told reporters in the Knesset. “The main thing is to keep the momentum and progress going in the process with the Palestinians.”

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak said national elections were the only kind of referendum that is justified.

“The only referendum which is called for is one on the continuation of the government — meaning elections. Let us do the straight and simple thing – - call on the government not to hide behind gimmicks, non-binding referendums and ridiculous stalling maneuvers,” but to put its policies to the test of elections, he said.

Israel has never held a referendum. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had spoken of holding a national referendum on a future peace treaty with Syria.

Legal experts said holding a binding poll would require a change in the country’s basic laws.

David Libai, a former Labor justice minister, said such a move would be time- consuming and costly. He added that proponents of a non-binding referendum would be hard-pressed to find the support in the Knesset needed to pass legislation on the matter.

Libai said there was no government in the world that would summon the entire country as advisers on a policy issue.

“In a democratic country, we elect our leaders, the Knesset and the government, which is authorized to hold negotiations on agreements and bring them for approval before the Parliament,” he said.

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