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A bill that would require any future territorial withdrawals to be approved by a referendum suffered a serious setback yesterday, when the Knesset's legal advisor told a Knesset committee that it was unconstitutional.

The bill, introduced by Kadima MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, had already passed a preliminary reading and been sent on to an ad hoc committee for further discussion. And with U.S. President George Bush due to land in Israel today, some committee members had hoped to advance it again in order to send him a message.

But at the committee's first meeting, Knesset legal advisor Nurit Elstein told its members that in order for a referendum to be legally binding, the Knesset would first have to enact a Basic Law defining their legal status. Elstein's legal opinion was supported by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz.

The probability of the Knesset enacting such a law, Yitzhaki conceded, is extremely low, due to ultra-Orthodox parties' fear that referenda might be used to impose military service on yeshiva students, who are currently exempt from the army.

According to a law passed in 1999, any relinquishment of territory to which Israeli has applied sovereignty must be approved by at least 61 Knesset members plus a referendum. However, it added, the referendum requirement is conditional on the Knesset having passed a Basic Law on referenda by that time.

"Transferring authority over an issue that should be settled via primary legislation to an administrative body violates fundamental constitutional principles," Elstein said of Yitzhaki's proposal. "Some issues relating to referenda, especially defining who can vote and how the questions will be phrased, require a Basic Law."

Deputy Attorney General Orit Koren and Dr. Suzie Navot, a legal expert from the College of Management's Academic Studies Division, also supported Elstein's position.

"I am of the legal advisor's opinion," Koren said. "The proper way [to institute referenda] is through a Basic Law."

Committee Chairman MK David Tal (Kadima) urged the legal experts to come up with solutions to the problem before the panel's next meeting. "As it stands at the moment, the bill cannot proceed," he said. The bill, which passed its preliminary reading by a vote of 26-18, received support from MKs Ze'ev Elkin and Marina Solodkin of the Kadima faction, as well as Labor MKs Yoram Marciano, Avishay Braverman and Orit Noked.

It is also being pushed by a lobby for Golan Heights communities, which maintain that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan would be less likely if it required approval by a referendum.