Netanyahu: Any peace agreement will be brought to referendum

Prime minister rebuffs talk of coalition realignment in service of peace deal, saying it will be decided by nation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a meeting of the Likud-Beytenu faction in the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 09, 2013. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a meeting of the Likud-Beytenu faction in the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 09, 2013. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90

A day after Finance Minister Yair Lapid said he would support a coalition shift to back a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured his fellow Likud-Beytenu lawmakers Monday that any agreement would be subject to a national referendum, and not just Knesset politics.

“Any agreement reached will come to a referendum,” Netanyahu declared in a Likud-Beytenu faction meeting. “I committed to it and this is essentially correct and would happen if any agreement is reached.”

Netanyahu also told the faction he did not anticipate an accord being signed in the near future, in comments that contrasted with recent upbeat assessments by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The referendum bill, proposed by coalition chair MK Yariv Levin, passed its first reading in the Knesset on August 1 with 66 in favor and 45 opposed. The proposed legislation is an extension of a 2010 law and would require all land-for-peace deals to be submitted to a public vote. The law would cover areas in sovereign Israel, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but would not apply to the West Bank.

The referendum bill is currently undergoing revision and will be brought to a second and third reading at a later date.

“What will determine whether an agreement will be reached is not the composition of this or any other coalition, but rather the essence of the deal,” Netanyahu said, addressing Lapid’s remarks Sunday that a coalition change may be in order to further a peace deal.

On Sunday, Lapid vowed to not let the peace process be derailed by extremists, hinting at opposition to a deal by the nationalist Jewish Home party, which sits in the coalition.

“I’m determined to do everything within my power to ensure that this government stays the course — even if developments in the peace negotiations necessitate a coalition realignment of one kind or another,” he said.

Earlier Sunday Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett called peace negotiations that did not include Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, “a joke.”

The referendum bill was initially met with fierce opposition by a number of prominent Knesset members, including current Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, former opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich, Lapid, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is managing talks with the Palestinians.

“When we declare war, we don’t ask the nation (what they think),” Livni said in July. “This is how it should also be regarding any political settlement.” In a critique leveled at the proposed law, Liberman referred to the bill as a way for “decision makers to run away from responsibility.”

Bennett has touted a referendum as “the only way to prevent a rift in the nation.”

Israel and the Palestinians are five months into a planned nine-month negotiation aimed at coming to a peace agreement. Despite reports from both sides that the talks are reaching a dead end, the US, which is brokering the talks, has remained optimistic.

On Friday, Kerry said the sides were closer to peace than they had been in years.

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