When Judgment is Sacrificed to Opinion: Israel's Likud Referendum

When Judgment is Sacrificed to Opinion: Israel's Likud Referendum

On November 3, 1774, upon his election to represent the city of Bristol in the House of Commons, Edmund Burke decided to clarify a few things to his constituents.

On November 3, 1774, upon his election to represent the city of Bristol in the House of Commons, Edmund Burke decided to clarify a few things to his constituents. He assured them that "their wishes… [would] have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention." "But", he insisted, "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment and his enlightened conscience" would be carefully guarded from popular demands. "Your representative owes you," he famously informed his listeners, "not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion".

This weekend, in Israel, we were given a painful reminder of what happens when judgment is sacrificed in favor of opinion. After more than three years in power, Ariel Sharon reached the same conclusion that had cost Yizhak Rabin his life, and Ehud Barak his job: Israel, if it is to stay both Jewish and democratic, must begin to separate itself from the 3.5 million Palestinians it rules over. But Sharon, while craftier than his predecessors, lacks their courage. He decided to conduct a referendum among the members of his Likud party, in order to obtain their support for a disengagement plan. He was rebuked painfully. 60% of the voters returned a resounding "no," rejecting the plan that called for the uprooting of all settlements in the Gaza strip as well as four in the West Bank.

Sharon may have been overconfident, given the enthusiastic support he received from President Bush during his visit to Washington a few weeks ago (Bush rewarded Sharon's initiative by promising that Israel would not be forced to retreat to the 1967 borders and that the Palestinians would have no right of return inside the area of the Jewish state). He may have been too complacent and self-satisfied to seriously worry about the referendum, as a result of the wave of public support he enjoyed following the IDF's successful assassinations of two Hamas leaders. That is hardly the point. The point is that there was absolutely no reason to ask the voters of Likud what they thought in the first place.

Constitutionally, as well as politically, the question was useless. Constitutionally, Israel is a parliamentary democracy. According to its basic laws (the local, piecemeal correlate of a constitution), the government is responsible only before parliament, and not to the members of the party that voted it into power. In other words, any Israeli government is allowed to follow a policy that is at variance with the platform on which it was elected, without appealing directly to its voters, as long as it can procure the support of the Knesset.

Politically, Sharon's plan had the solid support of most of the Israeli public, and was assured a majority in parliament given the endorsement of Labor - the main opposition party. But, much more importantly, there was no reason to ask Likud voters (or any one else for that matter) for their approval because the plan was simply the right thing to do.

The initiative had the potential to shock the Israelis and Palestinians out of the stalemate they have been locked in for so long. For the first time in 37 years, settlements would actually be removed. The entire world would see a right-wing Israeli government officially abandon the fantasy of ‘a greater Israel'. A huge psychological barrier would be crossed. Further withdrawals would be considered on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds. Once the evacuations were carried out, international pressure would begin shifting to the Palestinians. An internal debate in the Palestinian society with regard to the efficacy of continuing the armed struggle against Israel could begin.

Now all of that will have to wait. The results of the referendum are not legally binding. Sharon might still be able to advance some sized down variation of his plan.  But this can't negate the damage that has already been done. Israel has been portrayed, in every major media outlet in the world, as tightfisted and intransigent, unwilling to evacuate 7,500 settlers from an area that is home to 1.5 million Palestinians. Prime Minister Sharon has been discredited both internationally and domestically and as incapable of promoting the policies he supports. The Americans and Europeans might no longer trust him to deliver on future promises. Israelis are dismayed at him for allowing a small minority of voters (51.6% of Likud party members, or about 99,000 people actually turned out to vote) to make a decision of such magnitude. Many on the Palestinian street have become even more convinced that the Israelis would never give up even an inch of their land. The Bush Administration, having so enthusiastically put its weight behind the discredited program, has lost even more credibility with moderate Arab regimes exactly at a time when it can ill afford such setbacks.

Sharon received all the permission he needed on January 27th 2003, when he was re-elected as Prime Minister. From that point on, he should have been guided only by his conscience and judgment. If he thought that the unilateral pullout was vital for Israel's future, he should have pressed on with it regardless of perceptions to the contrary among members of his party. If he still thinks so, he must bring the plan before the government and the Knesset, in spite of its rejection in the ballot. A leader turning to his constituents for approval on central questions risks becoming concerned with what he can get away with, rather than with what needs to be done. He risks, as Burke put it, becoming a ‘flatterer' rather than a ‘friend and servant' to those who elected him.


Nir Eisikovits, an Israeli attorney earning a Ph.D. in legal and political philosophy at Boston University, is a captain in the Israeli reserves.