Netanyahu seeks national referendum on peace deal

PM advancing bill to expand legislation that currently only requires the public to weigh in on a handover of the Golan and East Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on Sunday, July 21 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Flash90
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on Sunday, July 21 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/Flash90

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to rush through the Knesset a new law that would make any peace deal with the Palestinians contingent on the Israeli public’s approval in a national referendum, Jerusalem sources said Sunday.

According to sources in the Prime Minister’s Office who spoke to Hebrew Daily Israel Hayom, the move aims to advance the diplomatic process, and shows how serious Netanyahu is about resuming talks.

Netanyahu addressed the referendum in Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, characterizing the resumption of talks, which have been on hold since 2010, as a strategic interest.

“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,” he said.

“It won’t be easy,” Netanyahu warned, “but we’re going into the negotiations with integrity and honesty.”

In 2010, the government passed a law making the holding of a national referendum mandatory in any case where Israel would be required to surrender sovereignty over territories it had annexed — i.e. East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The new bill would expand that law to require a referendum prior to handing over any land as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Haaretz reported Monday that Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett sent a message to Netanyahu demanding that he activate the coalition agreement clause that stipulates the passing of such a bill within 90 days, in light of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that talks would be resumed in the near future.

Kerry announced Friday 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.

Netanyahu is expected to present the terms of the resumptions of talks, including the release of Palestinian prisoners, for the Cabinet’s approval next Sunday. Earlier Sunday, Channel 10 reported that the decision would not be presented to the entire government, but would only be brought before the internal security cabinet, where chances of it being accepted without opposition are much higher.

The phased release by Israel of some 80 veteran security prisoners who have all served at least 20 years of their sentences, is one of the major incentives for the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. The prisoners are expected to be released in four phases — one phase every four months — as talks progress. Many of the prisoners, incarcerated before the Oslo Accords in 1993, were personally involved in the murder of Israelis. No Arab Israeli prisoners are scheduled to be released.

Israeli sources say the talks are set to last from 9 to 12 months. Israel would be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu envoy Yitzhak Molcho, and the Palestinians would be represented by veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat. Kerry said Friday that he expected the talks to resume in Washington next week, but Israeli officials said logistics might require a further week of preparation.

Palestinian officials have yet to confirm that the talks are indeed set to begin. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not spoken about the possible resumption of talks since Kerry’s announcement Friday. In an attempt to restrict official Palestinian comment, Abbas’s office said only two top aides, Nabil Abu Rdeneh and Yasser Abed Rabbo, would be allowed to speak to reporters.

Abed Rabbo said early Sunday that the Palestinian leadership has not yet decided to return to negotiations with Israel and will only do so if its basic demands are met. He told Palestinian radio that the PA leadership was currently engaged in dialogue with the American administration, and would only announce the resumption of negotiations depending on the outcome of those talks.

Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report

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