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News Analysis: Israelis Debate Wisdom of Plan to Hold Redeployment Referendum

Referendum fever swept Israel this week as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blew hot, then cold, then hot again over the idea of holding a national plebiscite on the next Israeli redeployment from the West Bank.

As legal experts debated precedents for the idea and technological wizards proposed state-of-the-art methods for conducting such a referendum, some Israelis wondered why the premier would want to go ahead with a procedure that has never before been employed in Israel.

The very notion of turning to public opinion to decide a major policy issue – – in an apparent attempt to circumvent opponents in the Cabinet and the Knesset — raised concerns among some Israelis already uneasy about developments that are seen as weakening the country’s democratic institutions.

Just the same, the referendum idea, not yet crystallized, quickly prompted sharp criticism from Palestinian officials — who derided it as a delaying tactic — and even ridicule from Netanyahu’s own defense minister.

“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.”

In fact, Netanyahu first dismissed as “a joke” hard-line Gesher Knesset member Michael Kleiner’s idea that the whole country be asked for its opinion of the proposed redeployment.

But he quickly seems to have taken a liking to the notion.

On Monday a panel of ministers and legal aides convened, on Netanyahu’s orders, to consider the practicalities of holding a referendum.

Justice minister Tzachi Hanegbi announced that he would recommend holding a non-binding referendum that could be organized in about two months. “The government cannot ignore its results,” he said.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu said canvassing the nation’s views on the proposed pullback was “no joke.” But he did not explicitly commit himself to holding a referendum.

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 16-month deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The Palestinians have accepted the plan, which also would require them to step up security measures to counter terrorism.

But Netanyahu faces staunch opposition from far-right members of his coalition who have threatened to bring down the government if any more land is transferred to Palestinian control.

Since recent opinion polls are united in showing strong support for the pullback, political pundits see the referendum idea as a possible way of advancing the peace process.

Netanyahu, the pundits reason, may hope to implement the redeployment if his right-wing partners can cite the `cover’ of a referendum to remain in the coalition.

But legal experts question the wisdom of going over the heads of the country’s elected officials.

David Libai, a former Labor justice minister, said there was no government in the world that would summon the entire country as advisers on a policy issue.

He added that referendum proponents would be hard-pressed to find the support in the Knesset needed to pass legislation to hold such a poll.

The referendum proposal is the latest in what some Israelis see as troubling developments affecting the country’s central institutions — the government, the Knesset, the prime minister, the president and the Supreme Court.

The government: The prime minister, now directly elected by the people under Israel’s new election law, has chosen to conduct policy, at home and abroad, with scant reference to his Cabinet. He sends his personal aides to negotiate with the Palestinians and with Washington; other aides play a key role in economic policymaking. Ministers complain incessantly that they are kept in the dark.

The Knesset: The new election system has seriously eroded the standing of the Knesset as the repository of ultimate sovereign power. Week after week, the government loses votes of no-confidence in the legislature, but these actions have no impact. A majority of 61 in the 120-seat Knesset is now required to unseat a government, but such action would also result in the Knesset’s dissolution. That outcome makes it much less likely that legislators would want to bring down the government.

The president: Ezer Weizman, on paper a constitutional head of state bereft of political power, has been intervening ever more vigorously and publicly in politics and policymaking.

This week, in a particularly bitter outburst, he poured scorn on Netanyahu during a conversation with opposition Knesset members, reportedly casting aspersions on the premier’s sincerity in advancing the peace process. Weizman, in fact, is shaping up as the strongest single source of opposition to Netanyahu’s peace policy. The Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, though strongly critical, is careful always to seek the middle ground for fear of alienating potentially disgruntled Likud voters.

The Supreme Court: This traditional bastion of liberties finds itself almost daily at the center of controversies, many of them reflecting the deepening Orthodox-secular divide in Israeli society. While the court’s rulings are, of course, open to criticism as are those of every court in a democracy, a situation is developing in which the very legitimacy of the court is being challenged in wide circles.

Orthodox Israelis, among them lawyers and intellectuals, say openly that they have little respect for the court. They demand a higher representation for the religious sector among the justices. Under its current president, Chief Justice Aharon Barak, the Supreme Court involves itself in political issues more than it did in the past. Thus the controversy around its composition often cuts across raging political debates and drags the court, which should be above politics, into the turmoil of political life.

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