The National referendum law, which will be presented on Wednesday for a first-draft vote in the Knesset—following which it goes to committee for more deliberations—continues to entangle Jewish Home chairman Nftali Bennett in a web of unintended consequences, as Israel Today, the unabashedly pro-Netanyahu daily is reporting with unhidden satisfaction.
It began a week ago, when Bennett, in a reaction from the hip to the resumption of peace negotiations, declared that his party would not vote in favor of the new budget, unless the referendum bill—empowering the voters to decide directly on the future peace deal with the Palestinian Authority—is passed first.
That was not a smart move, because it meant that, for the first time since joining the coalition government, Bennett opted to wave the resignation flag, the nuclear option, if you will, and such heavy weapons are usually better hinted at rather than waved. For one thing, once the prime minister calls your bluff your only option is to capitulate; and, also, nuclear options tend to lose their potency with use.
Bennett and Netanyahu found a mutually beneficial way of helping the young leader down from that tree—mostly because Bibi loves the referendum option.
First – it lets the Israeli negotiations team work uninterrupted for nine months, without undue pressures, the kinds of pressures that often dismantle negotiations. What’s the worry, is the message now – if you don’t like the peace deal, you can always vote it down in a referendum.
Second – a referendum is won by whomever gets to write the question. And Bibi is planning to write the question in a way that would get the peace deal through with the voters’ blessings.
It’s been outright fascinating to watch, these past seven months or so, how Netanyahu and his team have been using both young, inexperienced new champions of Israeli politics, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, to advance his own goals. Why, he just got Finance Minister Lapid to pass for him a budget bill that is the complete refutation of every single principle Lapid’s Yesh Atid party ran on. You should have listened to Labor chair Shelly Yechimovich reciting Lapid’s platform and comparing it to the budget – she obviously enjoyed rubbing her one-time fellow journalist’s nose in the messy pile.
And now Bennett delivered an ultimatum that served Netanyahu’s every need: the referendum makes Bibi look democratic, while at the same time he gets a year of industrial peace while Tzipi Livni sells out the settlers and ships them downriver for processing. Win-win…
Fortunately, many of the National Religious rabbis are a great deal smarter than the guy who won the election for their party.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, dean of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, wrote a resounding opinion piece reminding readers that of the movement’s spiritual giants, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, vehemently opposed a referendum on Israel’s right to the liberated territories. He actually issued a proclamation to the nation to that effect.
For one thing, argued Rabbi Aviner, “we, the people who reside in Zion, have no moral right to excise portions of our land. It isn’t our private possession, but rather the possession of the entire nation in all its generations. It belongs to the Jews of Russian and America, to the generations that have been and that are yet to be, to our grandfather who has already passed away and to our grandchild who is yet to be born. Therefore, any act of treason [in this regard] is illegal, immoral, unbinding and completely worthless.”
Rabbi Tzvi Tau, dean of Har Hamor yeshiva, has also totally rejected the referendum idea, from a slightly different angle: he says the nation cannot be asked to decide issues which are against halacha-Jewish law.
Wherever Jewish Home MKs are turning these days, they receive mostly negative opinions from their own movement’s rabbis, with the noted exception of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, dean of the Or Etzion yeshiva.
The response from Jewish Home has been that the purpose of the referendum bill is “to prevent a tear in the nation, like what we’ve been exposed to in the Oslo accords and the disengagement (in Gush Katif, Gaza).”
Except that there’s an inherent assumption on the part of Bennett and his team, that the nation would reject the peace deal in a referendum. But what if it doesn’t? What if the referendum is preceded with a well oiled, multi-million dollar campaign touting the economic benefits of the new peace, the security assurances, the love Israel would generate around the world with its capitulation – what would Jewish Home do then? Leave government? That would bring a lot of comfort to the settlers on their packed buses.
If you’re keeping score, the referendum bill should be jotted as strike two for Naftali Bennett, who just managed to secure a year of uninterrupted negotiations for Netanyahu. Strike one was his failure, as Minister of Religious Services, to get a National Religious chief rabbi elected.
We’ll keep you posted on the young maverick’s next great political strides. Thank God, the Knesset is taking a much needed summer break until after the holidays. That’s two and something months without a catastrophe.