Netanyahu affirms support for referendum on peace

PM tells visiting Swiss foreign minister he’s inspired by Bern’s tradition of letting the populace decide on policy issues

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter at the premier's Tel Aviv office on Thursday. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter at the premier's Tel Aviv office on Thursday. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday that he wants Israelis to have their say on any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

In a meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said that there were a few things about his guest’s country that he’d like to learn about, namely its experience with referendums on political issues.

His statement comes amid renewed speculation that Israel and the Palestinians may restart negotiations after the Arab League threw its weight behind the idea of minor land swaps in an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We have a saying in Israel: Israel isn’t Switzerland. And what they mean by that is that your neighborhood is more tranquil and less challenging. That is true. Still, I don’t know of any Israeli who would like to exchange our country for somewhere else,” Netanyahu said.

“But there are a few things that I think we can learn from you, and one of them is the referendum. Not for every issue; not on every point of debate; but on one thing — which is, if we get to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I’d like to bring it to a referendum. And I’d like to talk to you about your experiences with that, and many other things.”

Burkhaltar responded by saying he was very happy to be Israel, in Hebrew, and then explained that Switzerland often has referendums.

“If you come to Switzerland — and you’re invited anytime — I can show you how our referendums work, because we have them all the time.”

On Monday, Netanyahu defended the idea of a national referendum on any peace agreement with the PA, even fending off challenges from within his faction.

“I support the referendum for the simple reason that it’s a very important issue,” Netanyahu told members of Likud-Beytenu at the faction’s weekly meeting. ”I don’t think a diplomatic agreement can be decided by an arbitrary majority.”

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman registered his disagreement.

“There’s a government that must rule; not everything can be passed by referendum,” said Liberman, who is slated to become foreign minister if he manages to beat the corruption charges he’s currently on trial for.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been frozen for more than four years, but in recent months, the referendum issue has once again become a topic of debate in Israel.

Opponents say a deal should be decided by elected legislators while supporters say a referendum would provide popular legitimacy.

Israel passed a law in 2010 that would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority or, failing that, a referendum on ceding the Golan Heights or East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their would-be state. Both areas were captured in 1967.

A longstanding Arab League peace initiative was amended Monday to allow for “mutually agreed” land swaps in a future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, after a meeting between Arab League officials and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The announcement was made by Qatar’s prime minister, Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, in Washington

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, a member of the the PA’s ruling Fatah party — Hamas’s rival — was quick to endorse the apparently softened Arab League stance on negotiations, saying that minor land swaps that would obviate the need to evacuate major Israeli settlement blocs were in line with the PA’s position.

Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.

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