Israel split over Golan hand-back referendum

CENTRAL Jerusalem, well after dark. A cluster of people are standing on the pavement, surrounded by huge banners written in Hebrew calling on Israelis not to hand over the Golan Heights. It is nearly midnight: the traffic is light and it is uncomfortably chilly. But the campaigners know they have a job to do, and they are determined to do their best.

Their mission is straightforward, but far from simple: to persuade Israel's 4.5 million electorate not to give the plateau to Syria after more than three decades of occupation.

In the 51 years of its existence, Israel has never held a referendum, but the battle is now on. The prime minister, Ehud Barak, is committed to holding one - if Israel reaches a peace deal with Damascus. There is a heavily charged debate over whether it is the right way of taking crucial decisions in a new, divided and rapidly changing society.

Opponents say that Israel is not suited to referendums. They complain that the Israeli public is simply too polarised to decide a key issue in this way. Where else can you find such a diverse and conflicting group of people in a country no larger than New Jersey - a land in which Zionists, whose families have for generations shed blood in the battle for the land, co-exist uneasily with closed ultra-religious communities and newly-arrived Muscovites who know nothing about the place?

The referendum will be held only if a peace agreement is reached with the Syrians and is then approved by a straight majority of 61 in the 120- member Knesset. But the issue has already begun to dominate political discussion.

For days there have been debates about the referendum's precise wording, timing and funding. But it erupted into bilious sectarianism last week when the right-wing opposition party, Likud, tabled a parliamentary amendment requiring a vote, not merely of a simple majority, but of more than 50 per cent of the total electorate for the referendum to pass. In effect, anyone who doesn't bother to turn out is deemed an opponent.

The move caused an outcry. It was condemned as a brazen attempt to neutralise the vote of Israeli Arabs, who comprise some 15 per cent of the electorate, and who are expected to support Israel's withdrawal. Likud's apologists tried to counter by arguing that similar "special majority" conditions apply in other Western countries, such as Norway, Austria and Spain - where referendums require a simple majority vote from the electorate, but must then be approved by a weighted vote in parliament - for example, two-thirds.

The critics were unimpressed. The justice minister, Yossi Beilin, denounced the Likud amendment as "racist and populist". The influential Ha'aretz newspaper announced in an editorial: "Mitigating the influence of Israeli Arab voters on matters concerning transfer of territory in the context of a peace treaty is nothing less than a declaration that Israeli Arabs are not equal citizens under the law, and that they are not allowed to take part in determining the future of the country."

Israeli Arabs have also had to endure calls from right-wing parliamentarians for them voluntarily to forgo their right to vote. The latter concede that fiddling with the principle of a simple majority vote in the referendum would be undemocratic, but they also make little attempt to hide their view that Israeli Arabs are suspect on questions of the Jewish state's interests and security.

Such is the acrimony that it produced a scathing counter-attack from one celebrated Arab sportscaster, Zohir Bahalul, in the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. He announced that he would not be voting in the referendum, as he had always felt excluded from full participation in Israeli society. "I refuse to be part of a game show portraying me in my own eyes and in those of the public as a partner in these fateful decisions when in fact I am an outsider, a statistic and clearly an observer," he wrote.

The stakes are high. Polls show that public opinion is split. Few think that the Barak government would survive a No vote. "It will be very, very critical," said Professor David Newman, head of the politics department at Ben Gurion University. "But I think you will see a big difference in the polls between now and voting day. After people have watched negotiations for six months, and seen Barak come back with an agreement and put it through the Knesset, a lot of Israelis will want to accept the deal on the table."

And after voting day - if the referendum eventually goes ahead - there will be a new question. Will more major issues be decided by a crude Yes or No vote?

"The moment you return an issue to the populus, a precedent is set and politicians will be under pressure to do the same thing again," said Prof Bernard Susser, an expert on electoral reform at Bar-Ilan University. In a region where problems usually require compromise, subtle legal wording and copious portions of fudge, that is a worrying prospect.

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