Forces from both ends of the political spectrum in the ruling coalition lambasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for a national referendum on any peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority on Sunday.
Dovish Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who will head up Israel’s negotiating team, said the idea of putting a peace deal up to a national vote would undermine her role as an elected official. “The public elected us to… make the courageous decisions. The general election is the only real referendum,” she told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
Avigdor Liberman, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman and head of the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu, referred in recent weeks to referendums as a way for “decision makers to run away from responsibility.”
On Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that both the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a “framework” for the resumption of talks. The Palestinians, however, have yet to confirm their participation.
Livni, who is charged with heading the Israeli negotiating team, Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat would meet in Washington in the coming days to begin the process for the renewal of negotiations, Kerry said.
In Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he would push for a national referendum if a deal was struck.
“I don’t think these decisions can be made, if there is a deal, by one government or another, but need to be brought as a national decision,” the prime minister said. “It won’t be easy,” Netanyahu warned, “but we’re going into the negotiations with integrity and honesty.”
In 2010, the Knesset passed a law requiring a national referendum for Israel to relinquish East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, a move decried by some on the left as a roadblock against a peace deal.
Any deal with the Palestinians would involve Israel pulling out of much of the West Bank; unlike the Golan Heights, the Old City and East Jerusalem, also captured in 1967, Israeli law was never extended to the area.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday told the Jordanian newspaper Al-Rai that he too plans to bring any agreement with Israel to a national referendum.
Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, threw his full support behind the call for a national referendum. “A referendum is the only way to prevent a rift in the nation,” Bennett said on Sunday. “The Jewish Home faction will insist on its implementation.”
Several sources reported on Monday that Bennett will officially link his party’s support of the national budget to a government commitment to hold a referendum on any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
A national referendum for any peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority was a condition laid down by the Jewish Home party when it joined the Netanyahu coalition.
Yesh Atid, the largest coalition partner after the ruling Likud-Beytenu faction, has yet to support or reject the referendum idea. After Netanyahu’s announcement on Sunday, the party released a statement that it will make a decision when the issue is actually brought to a vote.
When Livni was a Likud minister in 2000, she and fellow party member Silvan Shalom proposed a referendum similar to the one Netanyahu is now promoting. According to their proposal, in the event that the Knesset passed a framework accord for a final settlement with the Palestinian Authority, a national referendum would be held between 60 and 120 days after the Knesset registered its approval.
Now, however, she has a different view. “When we declare war, we don’t ask the nation (what they think),” Livni said on Sunday. “This is how it should also be regarding any political settlement.”
Ron Friedman and Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.