Netanyahu Planning Referendum Law for Any Peace Deal With Palestinians

Under pressure from right-wing members of his government, Netanyahu plans to introduce a law which will make ratification of any agreement dependent on a public referendum.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to expedite legislation in the coming days of a public referendum bill, a senior official in Jerusalem said. The move comes in response to pressure from the right over renewed negotiations with the Palestinians.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett conveyed a message Sunday to Netanyahu through coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin, in which he stated that Habayit Hayehudi, of which Bennett is chairman, demands immediate implementation of the coalition agreement in regard to the referendum bill, which meant passing it within 90 days.

Bennett told Levin that he wanted the preliminary reading of the bill to take place immediately, among other reasons because of the renewal of talks with the Palestinians. “If it was urgent to vote on the universal draft bill or the governance bill, the referendum bill can also be moved ahead quickly,” Bennett told Levin.

Levin gave Netanyahu the message and the prime minister, who wanted to move the bill ahead in any case, told Levin that he would see whether the bill could be expedited. Netanyahu also looked into the possibility of moving legislation ahead this week, but found out that it had still not been properly presented to the Knesset and a number of technical steps still had to take place.

Speaking at Sunday’s cabinet meeting about the resumption of talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said that if a peace agreement was attained it would be presented for a referendum.

"I think it’s essential. I don’t think that decisions like this can be made, if an agreement is indeed attained, through some coalition move, but rather it should be presented to the people to decide,” he said.

Palestinian prisoners release

The cabinet is expected to vote within a few days on the release of 82 Palestinian security prisoners as an act of good will aimed at renewing negotiations with the Palestinians. The vote will most likely be held next Sunday, even before the start of talks in Washington between Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. But the prisoners will only be released after the talks start.

Netanyahu has still not decided whether to bring the issue to the full cabinet or the security cabinet only, but he is reportedly leaning toward presenting it to his entire cabinet for a vote.

The prisoners to be freed are part of a group of 103 Palestinians who have been in Israeli prisons since before the signing of the Oslo Accords, in 1993, serving terms for their involvement in terror attacks in which Israeli citizens were killed.

The remaining prisoners are either Israeli Arabs, whom the government refuses to release as a matter of principle, or Palestinians whose release has been rejected by the Shin Bet security service for security reasons.

The prisoners will be released in four groups, one group every six to eight weeks according to progress in the negotiations, a senior Israeli official said.

The cabinet is expected to approve the release in principle and authorize Netanyahu to decide on the exact dates of the release. Before each release, the names of the prisoners will be made public 48 hours in advance, to allow time for objections or petitions to the High Court of Justice.

At Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting Netanyahu addressed the resumption of negotiations, saying: “I am committed to two goals, and it must be understood that they must also guide the result, should there be one. First of all, if it will be, it will be put to a referendum.”

Netanyahu said he will enter negotiations with the Palestinians “with integrity,” and assured ministers he will “strongly uphold” Israel’s security needs throughout the talks.

“Our negotiating partners will need to make concessions that will allow us to maintain our security and uphold our vital national interests,” Netanyahu said, adding that he hoped the negotiating process “will be conducted responsibly, seriously and substantively, and, I must say, at least in the opening stages, discreetly.”

President Shimon Peres called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday night and congratulated him on his decision to resume negotiating with Israel. “There is no alternative to peace,” Peres told Abbas, according to a statement released by the President’s Residence. “You’ve made a brave and historic decision; don’t listen to the skeptics, you’ve done the right thing.”

Peres told Abbas that he believed Netanyahu was approaching the talks with serious intentions. “Netanyahu understands that this is a historic call. We want to see both peoples resolving this conflict,” Peres told his Palestinian counterpart.

Abbas told Peres in response that he hopes the talks would make progress and lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state that will live in neighborliness and peace with Israel. “We must continue the peace process that we started a few years ago and finish it,” Abbas said.

Peres also spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and thanked him for his efforts toward restarting the talks. “There are still obstacles before us, but this is a significant opportunity,” Peres said.

‘Unfounded speculation'

Qadura Fares, a senior Fatah figure who is president of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, told Haaretz on Sunday that all the reports about freeing Palestinian prisoners were unfounded speculation. Fares said that to the best of his knowledge Abbas was insisting on the release to their homes of all the prisoners who were tried prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords. Fares said that not only did Abbas say this to him and other figures involved in the matter, but the issue was also raised in Abbas’ presence during a telephone conversation between Kerry and Netanyahu. Netanyahu promised to examine the matter, Fares said.

Fares was adamant that the prisoner release was a precondition for negotiating with Israel.

The Palestinians are demanding that all 103 prisoners in the group be released, in additional to a small number of prisoners in ill health. The issue of the number and identities of the prisoners to be released is still unclear, according to a Palestinian official involved in the matter, and may be cleared up only when Livni and Erekat meet in Washington.

Netanyahu at a special cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Menahem Begin. July 21, 2013. Credit: AP



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