The Knesset early Thursday morning approved the first reading of a bill that requires a public referendum on any future peace deal with the Palestinians that would have Israel give up sovereign territory. The vote, 66 in favor and 45 against, was the last of the parliament’s summer session and followed a long night of marathon readings.
The bill covers all of Israel, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem, but does not relate to the West Bank, which was never annexed by Israel. It coincides with the resumption of long-dormant peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington. 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.
The bill reinforces an earlier law, passed in 2010, that requires the government to obtain a two-thirds Knesset majority or public approval via a referendum in order to sign away any Israeli territory. It aims to make the referendum bill a semi-constitutional Basic Law, putting it beyond the reach of the Supreme Court, which can theoretically strike down any regular law.
It still must be reviewed by the Knesset House Committee and faces two more readings, which will likely take place during the Knesset’s winter session, before it can be signed into law.
During a stormy debate in the plenum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the lectern to admonish MK Jamal Zahalke for an insult the United Arab List MK had hurled at Strategic Affairs and International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud).
“You’re an enemy of peace,” Zahalke said to Steinitz. “We were here before you and we’ll be here after you’re gone.”
Despite the late hour — it was almost 3 a.m. — Netanyahu, apparently interpreting Zahalke’s “we” to mean Arabs and “you” to mean Jews, requested permission to speak and then retorted, saying, “I heard MK Zahalke’s statement. The first part is untrue, and the second won’t come true.”
Zahalke explained that he hadn’t been referring to Steinitz or the Jews, but rather, “I meant that we’ll remain after racism is gone.”
The bill is being championed by Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party, with the full backing of Netanyahu, who last week said that “A diplomatic agreement that doesn’t have the public’s support, doesn’t deserve to be signed.”
Despite the fact that Netanyahu’s support for the bill basically guaranteed it would pass, Bennett threatened to withdraw his party’s support for the government’s 2013-14 budget proposal if the legislation wasn’t advanced. The budget was endorsed by the Knesset earlier this week.
Within Netanyahu’s coalition, the bill was panned by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who’s heading up peace talks with the Palestinians, and MK Avigdor Liberman, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman and head of the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu, who has referred to referendums as a way for “decision makers to avoid responsibility.”
Livni was one of the authors of the original 2010 referendum bill.
Surveys have indicated that there’s a majority among Israelis for a withdrawal as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.