Netanyahu Scuttles Rival's Bill Aimed at Hindering Division of Jerusalem in Future Peace Deal

According to the Bennett-sponsored bill, land concessions would only be allowed with the support of 80 lawmakers ■ Bennett and Elkin to present new version of bill next week

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting in August 2016.
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vetoed the advancement of a bill that would make it difficult to divide Jerusalem in any diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation was meant to discuss the bill, proposed by Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, on Sunday. But instead, the prime minister used his authority to prevent the bill being brought to a vote.

On Sunday evening, Bennett and Minister Ze'ev Elkin of the Likud party announced that they will work together to bring a new version of the bill before the ministerial committee next Sunday.

The bill is meant to in effect prevent the usage of a referendum to decide on territorial concessions in Jerusalem, as was determined by a Basic Law Bennett supported three years ago.  

Habayit Hayehudi said in response to Netanyahu's actions: "Jerusalem is unified through actions, not speeches. We regret that narrow political considerations prevail over the prevention of the division of Jerusalem. We will continue fighting to pass this law, and will make every effort to advance the law in the coming days."

According to Bennett's proposed amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel, a decision on territorial concessions in Jerusalem would need to be backed by 80 Knesset members. "The only way to real peace is to make abundantly clear that Jerusalem is not up for debate,” Bennett wrote on Twitter.

The already rigid process of ratifying agreements that involve conceding territories is anchored in another Basic Law, different to the one Bennett wishes to change. It’s uncertain if the new initiative legally supersedes the existing formulation.

Likud said in response that "stealing credit also has its rules, and you can't propose a bill on Jerusalem without cooperating with [Likud's] Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin. Habayit Hayehudi's wheeler-dealers know very well that Prime Minister Netanyahu supports the law – he supported it already in 2007.

"They also know that according to governing coalition agreements, a Basic Law proposal mandates the agreement of all coalition partners. But instead of reaching agreements by cooperation, Habayit Hayehudi prefers to engage in petty politics.

"Likud is committed that Jerusalem will always stay unified under Israeli sovereignty, and that's why we won't be dragged into Bennett and [Justice Minister Ayelet] Shaked's kindergarten, but advance a bill together with all the coalition partners," it added.   

Referendum rulings

The Basic Law on Referendums, which was passed in 2014 with Bennett’s support, already requires approval by 80 Knesset members in order to transfer any part of Jerusalem or areas under Israeli sovereignty in the event of a diplomatic resolution of the conflict.

According to this Basic Law, if the number of lawmakers supporting such concessions is lower than 80 but higher than 61, a referendum must be held.

The draft proposal for the new bill wishes to change the Basic Law on Jerusalem. The proposal, signed by Habayit Hayehudi's Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, determines that 80 out of the 120 lawmakers will be required to approve the transfer of land in Jerusalem to a foreign government.

Habayit Hayehudi hopes the proposed change will neutralize the possible use of a referendum as stipulated by the Basic Law on Referendums.

'This is a huge thing'

A Habayit Hayehudi official recently explained that the ratification of the Basic Law would have significant political and diplomatic implications. "This is a huge thing," he said. "Diplomatically, the Palestinian interpretation would be that Israel is burying the chances of establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. It's as if the Palestinians would have enshrined in eternal legislation their commitment to the absolute realization of the refugee issue."

Another party official said that "a referendum doesn’t require a majority of half the population, but of half the voters." He added, "It could happen that a Jewish minority that supports the city's division joins Israeli Arabs who would vote for the move – leading to the division of Jerusalem. In the current Knesset, however, you can find 62 Jewish and Arab lawmakers who would support an initiative to divide Jerusalem. That is far less than the 80 supporters we demand, and that's why the new law would ensure that Jerusalem will never be divided."

A review of Knesset votes shows that different governments have found it hard to mobilize such support for yielding territory. Only 61 lawmakers supported the 1993 Oslo Accords, while the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza was supported by 67 MKs. In contrast, the peace treaty with Egypt and the return of the Sinai Peninsula to the Egyptians was supported by 105 lawmakers.

Zionist Union Chairman Isaac Herzog blasted the proposal. “Bennett is destroying any prospects for peace. Anyone now bringing forward baseless propositions is not interested in Jerusalem, only in disrupting the diplomatic process and the assurance that Israel stays Jewish and democratic,” he said.