The prospect of posing a referendum in the respective societies on any agreement reached between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators is not a new idea. Periodically it has surfaced in the political landscape, arising for different and sometimes contradictory reasons.
Because any final agreement between Palestinians and Israelis will involve a major compromise for Palestinians, who–by agreeing to two states–will be compromising their rights to 78 percent of historic Palestine, it would be useful for everybody involved to make sure that such an agreement enjoys the support of the majority of the Palestinian people.
This concept was always viewed positively by both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships. Israel, for its part, remains concerned that any agreement with Palestinians be final, i.e., does not leave any outstanding claims. One of the main means of ensuring that is by putting the agreement to a referendum that assures everybody that the agreement and the compromises it embodies are final, which will in turn be important for guaranteeing commitment.
The referendum idea was also referred to during reconciliation efforts between Fateh and Hamas and, before that, during the discussions between Palestinian factions that led to the Mecca agreement and the first national unity government in 2005. Fateh and Hamas, who have conflicting views about the correct political solution, were able to agree at that time and to form a national unity government on the basis of referring to a referendum any future agreement reached by the PLO in negotiations with Israel. Hamas has since reiterated that position in its attempts to show that it has a flexible position towards reconciliation, thus confirming its willingness to accept any agreement that would pass the muster of the Palestinian people through a referendum.
As such, the concept of referendum has been used by the Palestinian side in a constructive way that facilitates the peace process with the Israelis and the internal reconciliation process.
Recently, the referendum surfaced in Israel as well. It was used mainly by the current right-wing Israeli government in order to reassure those opposed to the peace process. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, squeezed between external pressure to proceed with negotiations on a two-state solution that would mean giving up Israeli control over the occupied Palestinian territories, and internal pressure from the strong right wing and radicalized Israeli political elite that seek further Israeli consolidation and control of these territories, used the referendum to navigate these pressures. He promised the Israeli public that, no matter what is negotiated or agreed, nothing will be final before a referendum is held. As such, the concept of the referendum was employed in a divisive manner.
Leaving the peace process up to the balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians will always produce widening gaps between them. While the idea of a referendum is legitimate for both parties, neither it nor for that matter negotiations should be over principles already established in international legality, such as the need to end the occupation that started in 1967. Rather, the referendum should be held on how those legal principles should be implemented and on the arrangements for future peace, security and prosperity for all parties within their legal borders and in complete accordance with international legal standards.