The chief argument supporting the 60,000 unlawful economic migrants’ continued stay in Israel rests on the Jewish State’s alleged obligations as a modern democracy. The reasoning goes that such states should not as a matter of ideology or international legal commitments and do not as a matter of practice return illegal migrants to repressive countries with abysmal qualities of life such as Eritrea and Sudan.
Yet contrary to the most fundamental and defining principle of democracy, the rule of the people, not a single Israeli civilian has had any say in handling the unlawful migrant crisis despite widespread opposition. If democracy is to truly be the guiding principle in resolving the crisis as the pro-migrant camp insists, then there is only one acceptable path to resolution: a national referendum.
Following the disastrous 2005 Gaza disengagement, a consensus emerged that restrictions must be placed on the Knesset’s making unpopular decisions that will change the face of Israel. For these matters, a mere parliamentary majority is insufficient and measures must be taken to ensure that the will of the people is respected. This consensus was legally crystalized in November 2010 when the Knesset passed a resolution mandating that any cession of the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem be approved by either a 2/3 Knesset majority or a national referendum.
The fate of Israel does not rest solely in territory but also in demographics. Were it the case that Israel’s absorbing 60,000+ Palestinians was on the table as part of a final peace arrangement, the post-disengagement consensus would demand the substantive consultation and approval of the Israeli people. The same holds true when addressing the indefinite and demographic-altering presence of an equal number of unlawful migrants, which according to a January 2011 Ynet-Panels poll, are viewed by 78% of Israelis as a threat to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state.
Greek lesson for Israel
The rise of the radical Right in Greece should pose as a lesson to Israel in what happens when a democratic government undemocratically disregards the will of the people. In Greece, severe and unpopular austerity measures have led to widespread protests, strikes and rising support for accused neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. In Israel, violence has erupted as a result of the government’s turning a blind eye to the unlawful migrant crisis and deaf ears to the Israeli peoples’ concern for the economic, cultural and social integrity not just of south Tel Aviv but all of Israel.
While a referendum would undoubtedly democratize the unlawful migrant issue, some scholars view referendums with skepticism. In the forward to a 2000 study by the Israeli Democracy Institute entitled Referendum: Myth and Reality, Professor Asher Arian argues that referendums would delegitimize the Knesset and threaten the core of Israeli parliamentary democracy.
In this matter, however, such criticism is unfounded. A referendum cannot delegitimize the Knesset when the Knesset has already delegitimized itself by allowing 60,000 unlawful migrants to reside in Israel against the will of the people. Worse, the Knesset has assaulted the stability of Israeli democracy by allowing the migrants to subvert the rule of law by entering, staying and many times working illegally in Israel.
The past year has shown that the current government, which will almost certainly also be the next government, is more concerned with pleasing European states than with preserving Israeli democracy. Case in point, key members of the administration killed the NGO funding bill, which would have severely restricted European governments unaccountable to the Israeli voters from undemocratically interfering in domestic politics through local political NGOs.
Even if promises were made in the 2013 election campaign to abide by the will of the Israeli people in handling the unlawful migrants, a mechanism must be in place to circumvent European pressure against deportation, if that is what the people want. A referendum will achieve this goal.
Pro-migrant organizations such as the Migrant Worker Hotline, the Association of Civil Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights argue that the current crisis can be resolved by opening up Israeli society to the unlawful migrants with access to resources such as employment and healthcare. According to this reasoning, because crime and the economic burden caused by the unlawful migrants will decrease, the Israeli people will be less hostile to their presence.
This reasoning, however, ignores the demographic concerns. Even if the unlawful migrants were self-sufficient billionaires, they are not Jewish and therefore challenge Israel’s status quo as a Jewish state. If such post-Zionist alterations are to be made to Israel’s status quo, then democracy demands that the decision be left to the Israeli people.
Matthew Mainen is an Israel Affairs expert at the Institute for Gulf Affairs. He can contacted via Facebook