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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own