knesset - Michal Patel - November 23 2010
Prime Minister Netanyahu before a Knesset vote on the referendum bill. Photo by Michal Patel
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The Knesset yesterday passed a law mandating a referendum before any decision to withdraw from sovereign Israeli territory. The law, which passed by a vote of 65-33, will take effect immediately.

Because the law only applies to sovereign Israeli territory, no referendum would be needed to withdraw from any part of the West Bank. However, a referendum would be required for a pullout from East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, as both have been annexed by Israel. It would also be required if, under a future deal with the Palestinians, Israel ceded land within the pre-1967 lines in exchange for keeping the settlement blocs.

The law states that any withdrawal must first be approved by the Knesset. If it passes the Knesset by a two-thirds majority, or 80 MKs, then no referendum will be necessary. Otherwise, the withdrawal must then be ratified by a referendum.

The law addresses various details of how the referendum should be conducted, including how the question should be phrased, when the vote must be held, who is responsible for operating polling stations and how the pre-referendum campaigns for and against the withdrawal should be conducted. But it does not say anything about one very major issue: how the entire process should be funded.

The law was originally sponsored by Likud MKs, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in its favor before the vote. "A referendum will prevent an irresponsible agreement, but at the same time will allow any agreement that satisfies Israel's national interests to pass with strong public backing," he said.

He is convinced, he added, that any agreement he submits to the Knesset will indeed enjoy such backing.

But opposition leader Tzipi Livni said it was a sign of "weak leadership," and her Kadima faction voted overwhelmingly against the law. Only one Kadima MK, Otniel Schneller, voted for it, and three others who had expressed support for the bill in the past - including Livni's chief rival, Shaul Mofaz - skipped the vote.

Labor Party MKs, who are part of the coalition, were allowed to vote according to their conscience, and most of them also voted against the law. But one Labor minister, Shalom Simhon, voted for it, and three others, led by party leader Ehud Barak, skipped the vote.

The fact that the law received more than 61 votes, meaning it was passed by an absolute majority of the 120-member Knesset, will make it harder for anyone to petition the High Court of Justice against it, because it will eliminate the argument that the law passed with insufficient support for such fundamental, quasi-constitutional legislation. But Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, said yesterday that his organization will consider petitioning the High Court against it.

Knesset House Committee chairman Yariv Levin (Likud ), whose panel prepared the law, told the plenum before the vote that it "reflects the need to ensure that fateful, irreversible decisions about conceding parts of the homeland to which Israeli sovereignty have been applied" will not be made via dubious political horse trades, "as has happened in the past," but will instead reflect the will of the people. As such, he said, the law will promote national unity, because even opponents will not be able to argue - as they have in the past - that the Knesset's decision was not actually supported by a majority of the public.

Levin also told Haaretz that the law was intended to apply to substantive territorial concessions, not minor "border adjustments." However, the law itself does not specify this, leaving open the possibility that even a minor border adjustment could require a referendum.