Defense Minister Ehud Barak -  Ofer Vaknin
Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Defense Minister Ehud Barak yesterday criticized the Knesset's passage of a law requiring a referendum to approve any future Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

"This is not a good law, particularly at this time," said the Labor Party chief, who was absent during the Knesset vote on Monday. Barak said the law would allow Israel's adversaries to claim that Jerusalem is placing obstacles on the path to peace.

At a meeting with the heads of Negev local councils, the defense minister said the law is likely to spur intensified criticism of Israel while inviting more international pressure on the government to make concessions.

"The law is liable to be used by our enemies to claim that Israel is rejecting peace and is handcuffing itself to avoid progress in the diplomatic process," Barak said.

"A Palestinian state is a clear Israeli interest," the defense minister said. "We're not doing anybody a favor here. We need to overcome this hurdle [of a settlement freeze] because this is Israel's weakest point, one that is difficult to explain to the world. We need to move onto the core issues in which Israel's position carries greater weight. The government as currently constituted is not a simple one when it comes to our ability to make progress in the diplomatic process. If the need arises to expand the government, the responsibility falls on all of us."

The referendum law passed its second and third readings on Monday by a 65-33 vote. Kadima faction members opposed the bill, Labor was divided. Likud, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the National Union all supported the measure.

The law stipulates that ceding sovereign Israeli territory, either through a peace deal or any other mechanism, would require the approval of the Knesset and, subsequently, a national referendum. If the cessation of sovereignty is achieved by a Knesset vote of more than 80 legislators, this would nullify the need for a referendum.

In the final hours before the vote, coalition figures made feverish efforts to ensure at least 61 MKs voted in favor though it became clear the government had the necessary votes for passage. However, to avoid constitutional problems that could invite the intervention of the High Court of Justice, the coalition managed to enlist an absolute majority.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry official said yesterday the bill makes a mockery of international law and UN Security Council resolutions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also slammed the bill and accused Israel of impeding the peace process.

"This step puts obstacles in the way of the political process," Abbas told reporters during the opening of the new headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Ramallah.

"The Israelis want to tell the whole world that they will not withdraw from Jerusalem or the Golan," Abbas said.

While noting that he did not object to Israel putting the final peace deal to a referendum, Abbas said a referendum "on this part or that" meant "obstructions on the way to peace."