The "Referendum Law" that the Knesset voted to advance Wednesday would restrict the government's freedom of action in negotiations with the Palestinians, Syria and even Lebanon by making it harder to cede East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights or even Shaba Farms, whether unilaterally or by agreement.
The bill creates an onerous ratification procedure for any agreement that involves ceding sovereign Israeli territory: approval by the cabinet, by an absolute majority of 61 MKs and finally by a referendum in which voters would be asked whether they are for or against the agreement. The referendum itself would be decided by a simple majority. Only if the Knesset approved an agreement by a majority of 80 MKs - as it did the treaty with Jordan, for instance - would the referendum requirement be waived.
The bill would also eliminate the "constitutional lacuna" that currently enables unilateral withdrawals from sovereign Israeli territory. Currently, a simple majority of the Knesset could reverse the annexation of all or part of the Golan, and a 61-MK majority would be enough to alter Jerusalem's municipal boundaries. But the bill would require a referendum on any cession of territory to which Israeli law has been applied, even a unilateral one.
Thus Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once again called Wednesday for renewed talks with the Palestinians, is binding himself with constitutional chains. In Netanyahu's view, it is important that diplomatic agreements be supported by a majority of the public, and not just the coalition's majority in the Knesset. But he is also signaling the Syrians, the Palestinians and the international community that he will have trouble passing any significant concessions - and trying to strengthen his hand in the negotiations. In addition, he is thereby pressing his negotiating partners to close a deal quickly, before the bill becomes law.
The Knesset voted to advance this bill a day after the European Union declared that Jerusalem must be the capital of two states. This is the first time a major international player has asserted that part of Jerusalem must be the Palestinian capital.
The bill would cover any territory to which Israeli law has been applied - namely, East Jerusalem and the Golan. The latter also includes Shaba Farms, which Lebanon is demanding. Thus, it would even impede a withdrawal from outlying Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem on the wrong side of the separation fence, where Israeli sovereignty is in practice rarely exercised.
However, it would not impede withdrawals from the West Bank or the village of Ghajar on the Lebanese border, as these are not under Israeli sovereignty.
The idea of a referendum on the Golan was first raised by Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, and was meant to free him from his preelection promise not to cede the Golan. Five years later, Ehud Barak promised that any agreement with the Syrians or Palestinians would be subject to a referendum. So far, however, no agreement with either has been reached, so the idea has never been put to the test.
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