As peace talks begin

Bill Requiring Referendum on Ceding Land Passes First Knesset Reading

The law, still pending second and third reading, would not apply to West Bank settlements, which are not Israeli sovereign territory.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset gave initial approval to a government-backed bill late Wednesday night that would enhance the status of existing legislation providing for a referendum over any future decision on Israel’s part to give up its sovereign territory.

The bill would not apply to the West Bank or Jewish settlements there, because that territory has not been annexed by Israel.

It would create a new basic law—legislation with constitutional legal status—and would apply to any territorial concessions Israel might make in peace negotiations ceding territory in East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, both of which were annexed. The bill would also apply to other territory in Israel proper that might be swapped for territory where Jewish settlements in the West Bank are situated, as has been mooted in the past.

The existing law is regular legislation, rather than a basic law. On first reading, the new referendum bill passed by a vote of 66 to 45, but it still requires Knesset approval on a second and third vote.

"Tonight we are making history," said Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of Habayit Hayehudi, who had insisted on legislative action on the bill before the Knesset members left for their summer recess, which began Thursday. "It needs to be clear to everyone. The Land of Israel belongs to Am Yisrael," a term that literally means the People of Israel but which is a common reference to the Jewish people. "I hear [Shas party leader] Aryeh Deri preaching to me. Since Shas voted in favor of the Oslo Accord [with the Palestinians], what are you preaching to me?"

It is not clear why the left-wing has been opposed to a plebiscite, Bennett added. "Why are you bothered?" he asked. “If the people really want a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, why not go to a referendum? If there is a referendum, we will be out on every street and in every neighborhood and will convince [the public] that the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel."

In the course of the late-night session, which only ended at 3 A.M., a confrontation developed between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chairman of the Arab Balad party, MK Jamal Jahalka. "You need to ask the people of the world about the Israeli occupation," Zahalka stated, "rather than the opinion of the Israelis, who are occupying another people's land. We were here before you and will remain [here] after you," he told the Knesset.

Netanyhu asked to respond to the remarks. "I didn't plan to speak, but I heard MK Zahalka's statement 'we were here before you and will remain after you.' The first part is not correct and the second part will not happen," the prime minister said.

For his part, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar addressed remarks to the opposition parties in the Knesset. "There are those among you for whom I know [opposition to a referendum] is your consistent position. The Meretz faction consistently opposes referendums. But actually, as a collective group, the Labor Party is only opposed because you are in the opposition. You have always consistently supported a referendum; I checked. When matters are decided and we stand on either side of the divide, no one would want matters to be decided with defectors who are enticed by favors."

MK Yariv Levin (Likud), who sponsored the proposed new referendum bill, directed criticism at the High Court of Justice, saying that the constitutional legislation is necessary due to concern over petitions challenging ordinary referendum legislation and what he called an "unprecedented infringement" on the authority of the Knesset. "This matter is very serious. If up until now, we were used to the argument that the High Court of Justice has authority to intervene in cases involving trampling [on the rights of] minorities, when it comes to this bill, a referendum isn't tainted by this. On the contrary, it ensures majority [support] and provides an opportunity to every citizen in a manner that does not detract from the [rights of] the citizen."

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) asserted that the intent of the proposed bill was to "hamstring peace." MK Issawi Freij (Meretz), for his part, said: "You've confused us." Referring to a pending so-called governability bill that would in part raise the minimum electoral support parties would need to be represented in the Knesset, he asked: " What do you want? Governability or a referendum? We have a cowardly government here."

MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah) expressed support for the pending bill as a means through which rifts among members of the public can be bridged following a peace agreement. A referendum, he said, would actually assist in allowing Netanyahu to demonstrate flexibility in negotiations. Stern's party colleague Meir Sheetrit said he opposed the bill but would vote for it nonetheless to show support of Netanyahu in advancing the peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud's Zeev Eklin, who drew up the bill. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi