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November 23, 2010
NY Times recoils at letting Israeli voters have final say on any peace deal
The Knesset, Israel's democratically elected parliament, has enacted a law that mandates a public referendum before any part of East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights can be ceded to the Palestinians or to Syria in any peace agreements. The vote on passage was 65 to 33.
Why a referendum? Because any such land-for-peace deal would involve huge strategic security risks for Israel. And supporters of the law, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, argue that the Israeli electorate ought to be given an opportunity to weigh its merits because the Israeli people, after all, would have to live with the consequences.
But that's not the way the New York Times sees it. In an ostensible "news" article in the Nov. 22 edition, Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner warns right at the top of her story that the new referendum law "could hamper the leadership's ability to seal future peace deals with the Palestinians or to Syria." ("Israel Enacts Bill to Force Referendum On a Treaty" page A4).
Kershner's view is that getting a piece of paper proclaiming peace trumps the right of everyday Israelis to determine their own security, their own future. To this end, she first marshals arguments by referendum critics, starting with, of all people, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, who is furious that anything he manages to get in a peace accord would be subject to review by Israeli voters. "The Israeli leadership," Erekat fumes, "is making a mockery of international law, which is not subject to the whims of Israeli public opinion."
Kershner then summons the outrage of Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition Kadima party, who is equally condescending in slapping down the wishes of Israeli citizens -- "This is about decisions that should be taken by the leadership that understands the scale of the problems and is privy to all their aspects. The people are not a substitute for such leadership."
Livni and Kekrshner agree -- Never trust the people to shape their own fate. It's dangerous -- and democratic to boot.
Only after having first reported Erekat's and Livni's comments does Kershner get around to letting Netanyahu explain why he backs the new law -- "A referendum would prevent an irresponsible agreement, as well as ratifying any agreement that would meet Israel's national interests with a strong public backing."
In other words: Trust the people. How quaint!
Having granted Netanyahu a brief appearance far down in her article, Kershner immediately sets out to rebut his argument with comments from a Labor Party opponent of the referendum law, who calls it "a serious blow to Israel's political system -- a dangerous tool for a country with no tradition of using it."
Having spun her article against the referendum in no uncertain terms, Kersner then gives her own verdict against the law. Since it triggers a referendum on ceding any land that Israel annexed after 1967, she notes, this means a popular vote will be required on relinquishing any part or all of East Jerusalem, which Israel now regards as an integral part of its capital. "The annexation (of East Jerusalem) ," Kershner decrees with schoolmarmish didacticism, "was never recognized internationally, and the Palestinians demand East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state."
And there you have it. Never mind asking Israelis what they want. It's what Palestinians want that really counts.
What makes Kershner's unhappiness with the referendum law both offensive and ludicrous is that she and the Times never got as exercised a few years back when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas came up with the idea of a referendum of his own. Faced with growing opposition from Hamas, which wants to eliminate Israel altogether, Abbas suggested it might be a peachy idea to submit a two-state solution to a referendum of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank.
I don't remember that the New York Times set off a big hue and cry over how destructive of the peace process such a referendum might be in giving Palestinian voters a final say about their desires when it comes to shaping a Mideast peace.
Closer to home, the referendum has become a staple in many American states since the Progressive era of the early 20th Century. As a result, state legislatures regularly submit important public-policy questions to their electorates.
Are such referendum issues also an unwarranted intrusion of grassroots democracy in setting public policy in the eyes of Kershner and the New York Times?
Of course, not. It's only when Israelis condition their future on vox populi that the Times gets so very, very offended.