Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
November 22, 2010 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM — Israel’s right-leaning Parliament approved legislation late Monday that could hamper the leadership’s ability to seal future peace deals with the Palestinians or Syria.

The measure requires that any peace deal involving the ceding of territory annexed by Israel — namely East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — must be put to a national referendum.

The West Bank, which Israel never annexed, does not fall within the scope of the legislation, but it would include other pieces of sovereign Israeli territory that might be ceded in the context of land swaps in a peace agreement.

The bill was introduced by a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, and Mr. Netanyahu supported it. It passed, after a long debate, with 65 votes in the 120-seat Parliament. Thirty-three members voted against, and the rest were absent.

Politicians from the center and left who opposed the legislation, and some rightists who supported it, said it was intended to impede potential land-for-peace deals. It comes at a time when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are stalled over Israeli construction in the settlements.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, denounced the measure, saying, “The Israeli leadership, yet again, is making a mockery of international law, which is not subject to the whims of Israeli public opinion.”

Mr. Erekat said that under international law, Israel was required to withdraw from all of the territory that it occupied in 1967. “Ending the occupation of our land is not and cannot be dependent on any sort of referendum,” he added.

Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist Kadima Party, and Mr. Netanyahu’s leading rival in the elections last year, voted against the legislation. She said it was “not about who wants and who does not want to cede parts of land.”

“It is about decisions that should be taken by the leadership that understands the scale of the problems and is privy to all their aspects,” she said. “The people are not a substitute for such leadership.”

She described Mr. Netanyahu as “a weak prime minister,” who found it convenient to be hobbled.

The prime minister’s office responded with a brief statement in which it said, “A referendum would prevent an irresponsible agreement, as well as ratifying any agreement that would meet Israel’s national interests with a strong public backing.”

Politicians from the far right National Union Party said the goal of the bill was to prevent the destruction of the State of Israel by means of a peace agreement foisted on the nation by outside forces.

Two senior members of the center-left Labor Party, which is a partner in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, voted for the legislation. Other Labor members opposed it or were absent.

Einat Wilf, a Labor member of Parliament who voted against the bill, said it presented “a serious blow to Israel’s political system.”

“The referendum is a dangerous tool for a country with no tradition of using it,” she said.

The legislation was an amendment to a 1999 law that broadly outlined a requirement for a referendum on any territorial concessions involving Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. The new law details the procedures for such a referendum, turning it into a practical possibility for the first time.

It would require a referendum if a peace deal reached by the government were to win the support of at least 60 members of Parliament. If a deal were to win the support of two-thirds of the Parliament, or 80 members, there would be no need for a referendum, according to the law.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem shortly after capturing it and the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war. Israel claims sovereignty over East Jerusalem, describing it as an indivisible part of its capital. The annexation was never recognized internationally, and the Palestinians demand East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and extended Israeli law to the area in 1981. Any peace deal with Syria would necessitate its return.


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