Knesset approves Bill that requires referendum on return of land for peace


ISRAEL’S KNESSET has voted overwhelmingly for a Bill requiring a referendum on any peace agreement under which Israel relinquishes territory.

The Bill, which still needs to pass committee stage before two final votes in the Knesset, means an agreement with Syria which includes returning the occupied Golan Heights or a deal with the Palestinians which includes East Jerusalem, also captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, will be put to the people.

Any territorial concessions by Israel already require a special two-thirds Knesset majority. Under the terms of the Bill voted on yesterday, a referendum will be required if fewer than 80 of the 120 Knesset members back a land-for-peace deal.

Such a development would mark the first time Israelis have been asked to vote in a referendum. Knesset members voted 68-22 in favour of the Bill with one abstention, in a vote that crossed party lines. Over one-third of members of the centrist Kadima party voted in favour, even though the party’s leader, opposition head Tzippi Livni, voted against, saying “the people of Israel could not make decisions in place of the government they themselves had elected”.

The head of the Labor party, Ehud Barak, voted in favour, even though he spoke against the proposal, arguing that he was obliged to vote as a member of the government with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who supported the Bill.

Mr Barak told the Knesset the Bill “will put unnecessary pressure on the prime minister when the time comes to carry out negotiations with Syria and it gives the mistaken impression abroad that Israel is against peace”.

Opinion polls show that most Israelis oppose a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.

An unnamed Syrian source told BBC Arabic radio after the vote that “Israel cannot hold a referendum on land that it does not own”. Indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, via Turkish mediators, broke down when Israel invaded Gaza last December.

With bilateral peace contacts between Israel and the Palestinians stalled, there has been speculation over recent weeks that Israel may turn again to the Syrian track.

Earlier this week, the Haaretz newspaper quoted Mr Netanyahu as saying that Damascus had dropped its demand that Israel commit to withdrawing from the Golan Heights as a precondition for renewing peace negotiations.