Arab News (Editorial)
November 29, 2010 - 1:00am

By requiring a two-thirds Knesset majority to cede land in East Jerusalem to the Palestinians and the Golan Heights to Syria, a new Israeli law raises the bar for passage. Putting any such withdrawals to a national referendum will subject international law to the whims of Israeli public opinion.

The bill which Israel’s Parliament has passed will complicate peace efforts with the Palestinians and Syria by making it very difficult for any Israeli government to make territorial withdrawals.

Promoted by the right-wing Likud Party and backed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the bill, while it will take immediate effect, will have little impact in the short-term since neither deal seems imminent. Its danger, though, is reflected in the growing jitters by hard-liners in Parliament especially over US efforts to forge a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel.

Netanyahu is supposed to reach a deal with the Palestinians by September. But he leads a party that is determined not to surrender captured territory and has himself given few indications that he is willing to make the moves that would be needed. Now, Netanyahu has handcuffed himself even more. Eighty of 120 lawmakers need to approve any withdrawal from East Jerusalem and the Golan. Taking the issue one step further — or is it backward — without that special majority, the government would need to win approval in a national referendum.

Israel has no history of holding referendums which would require a change in the state’s basic laws. However, it does not need a soothsayer to predict that winning public approval would be an uphill battle. Polls tend to show most Israelis oppose ceding East Jerusalem which Palestinians want as capital of a future state. It could prove impossible to win Israeli public backing to relinquish even parts of the city which Israel has surrounded with a series of communities to solidify its control. These Jewish neighborhoods are akin to the West Bank settlements which are the current bane of contention delaying the negotiations.

As for the Golan, talk of withdrawal is hugely unpopular in Israel, where the Heights, which overlook northern Israel, are considered a strategic asset.

The law could help Netanyahu keep his coalition together by reassuring the political right that no territories will be ceded without the people’s approval. The referendum will definitely give Netanyahu greater maneuverability to overcome far-right opponents who refuse to yield occupied land but the bill makes a mockery of international laws and UN Security Council resolutions that deem both the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem as occupied territories. And what do the Palestinians have going for them except the law? With an exceptionally weak hand to play in terms of military strength and power politics, Palestinians have long drawn comfort from their certainty that international law is on their side — and it is on their side, overwhelmingly so. Take the law away and replace it with the urgings of an Israeli electorate and the result is not the slightest measure of justice.

Ending the occupation of Palestinian land is not and cannot be dependent on any sort of referendum.

The bill is being presented as an opportunity for ordinary Israelis to have their democratic say. But this is not the time for an exercise in Israeli democracy. Israel is obliged to withdraw from occupied land regardless of how its public perceives the issue or how it votes. Returning the land would be the greatest expression of democratic values.


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