Israeli Minister Working on Bill That Would Make It Harder to Divide Jerusalem

Naftali Bennett's bill would bar the usage of a referendum to decide on territorial concessions in Jerusalem as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Protesters hold up Palestinian flags during the Israeli flag march held on Jerusalem Day in the city's Muslim quarter, May 24, 2017.
Protesters hold up Palestinian flags during the Israeli flag march held on Jerusalem Day in the city's Muslim quarter, May 24, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, is pushing legislation that would make it harder for Israel to divide Jerusalem as part of any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

The bill he is promoting is intended to bar the usage of a referendum to decide on territorial concessions in Jerusalem. It would place the decision solely into the hands of lawmakers and a Knesset vote.

“The only way to real peace is to make abundantly clear that Jerusalem is not up for debate,” Bennett wrote on Twitter.

Speaking to Channel 2, Bennett elaborated on the claim, saying: “There cannot be a compromise regarding Jerusalem because it must stay united forever, and the only way to reach real peace is first of all to clarify that fundamental truth. It's true that [former Prime Ministers] Olmert and Barak offered up three of the Old City’s four quarters, but that only bred violence."

“The road to peace passes through a united Jerusalem, and enshrining Jerusalem through law is a necessary step that should have been taken a long time ago," said Bennett. "So now, we are doing it and it is curtaining, not an obstacle to peace.

“An agreement will not be reached in the context of a Palestinian state. I think that’s clear to everyone. I’m not concerned about the negotiations. I’m concerned about the creation of illogical expectations which always end up in waves of terror. What needs to be done is to construct peace from the ground up."

It is unclear what chances the legislation has or how effective it will be. The already rigid process of ratifying agreements that involve conceding territories is anchored in another Basic Law, different than the one Bennett wishes to change. It’s uncertain if the new initiative legally supersedes the existing formulation. In any case, the final version of Bennett’s proposal will only be completed on Sunday before being presented to the Knesset.

A source in Habayit Hayehudi clarified over the weekend that ratification of the bill will have significant political and diplomatic implications. “This is a huge deal. The Palestinians will interpret this as Israel burying the chances for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. It’s as if the Palestinians were to legislate their eternal obligation to completely fulfill the right of return for refugees,” said this source. He added that this move would also challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making it difficult for him to explain his opposition to ratifying this law to his base.

The Basic Law regarding referendums, which was passed in 2014 with Bennett’s support, already requires an 80-member Knesset majority 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 the law, if the majority supporting such concessions is lower than 80 but higher than 61, a referendum must be held. 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 Oslo accords, while the disengagement from Gaza was supported by 67. In contrast, the peace treaty with Egypt and the return of the Sinai Peninsula was supported by 105 Knesset members.

The draft proposal for the new bill, which was disseminated over the weekend, wishes to change a different Basic Law, one that deals with Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The proposal, signed by Habayit Hayehudi's Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, determines that a majority of 80 lawmakers will be required to approve the transfer of land in Jerusalem to a foreign government. The proposed change in the Jerusalem Basic Law will neutralize a possible use of a referendum as stipulated by the other Basic Law, although this has not yet been legally challenged.

“A referendum doesn’t require a majority of the population, only of those casting a vote,” said a senior member of Habayit Hayehudi. “A situation could arise in which a Jewish minority supporting the division of the city joins Israeli Arabs and votes for dividing Jerusalem. In this Knesset one can mark 62 MKs, Jewish and Arab, who would support such a proposal. This is much smaller than the 80 we demand – thus, this law will ensure that Jerusalem is never divided.” The party is considering whether to hold a referendum in any case, subject to raising the bar for supporting this in a Knesset vote. The decision on this issue will be made on Sunday, before the bill is presented.

Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Zionist Union, assailed the proposal that is now taking shape. “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.”

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