Law Forces Referendum on Territorial Withdrawal

The Knesset yesterday approved the referendum law, which mandates a national referendum or a two-thirds Knesset majority prior to any withdrawal from territory under Israeli control. The law was approved in its first reading by a majority of 65 MKs to 18.

The vote came as indirect peace talks are underway between Israel and Syria, revolving around the Syrian demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, in return for peace. A third round of talks is to begin today.

Earlier yesterday, the "Golan Lobby" convened at the Knesset ahead of the vote. The meeting was attended by Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), who said that the law is a positive and important measure, though his party generally opposes referenda.

"I think that talk about [pulling out of the Golan] Heights causes great damage to the residents," Yishai said. "Anything we can do to help is a blessing and therefore we will support the law."

An existing law mandates a referendum before ceding any territory under Israeli sovereignty, but it also states that this will not apply until a Basic Law detailing the procedures for holding a referendum is passed. The current law eliminated the need to enact a Basic Law. Instead, it requires that territorial concessions be approved by a referendum, general elections or a majority of 80 Knesset members.