Netanyahu Gives in to Demand For Referendum Bill

YERUSHALAYIM -

The Israeli government will pass a law requiring a referendum on any peace treaties, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced on Monday, after the Jewish Home party threatened to withhold support from the state budget, which, if not passed, would trigger new elections.

It was expected that the Knesset will pass a referendum bill before summer recess at the end of next week.

As the prospects of a peace agreement with the Palestinians have grown, so have tensions within Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

On Monday, as plans were being made for a meeting in Washington between Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat, news broke that the Jewish Home party had decided to hold the state budget hostage to passage of a bill  requiring a referendum on any peace agreement in which Israel gives up land.

Jewish Home chairman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said that a referendum on any agreement involving land was necessary to avoid a divided nation.

“I think it would be a disaster to have a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel, while other coalition parties disagree,” Bennet has said. “A referendum is the way to deal with that.”

If Netanyahu can’t pass a budget, his government falls and new elections are called. Netanyahu’s 68-member coalition won’t have enough votes to pass the budget without Jewish Home’s 12 mandates.

The referendum issue emerged just days after Netanyahu reportedly succeeded in keeping the coalition intact with an assurance that the Americans would not say the talks would be based on pre-1967 borders. That, apparently, was sufficient to appease Bennet, who threatened to bolt the government over that issue.

“As long as we are not giving up our territorial assets, we are staying in the coalition,” said Jewish Home faction head Ayelet Shaked.

An already-existing Referendum Law, passed in 2010, provides for a nationwide vote on any peace agreement which entails cession of sovereign land, if less than 80 MKs vote in favor of the treaty. Accordingly, evacuating parts of Yehudah and Shomron would not require a referendum, but dividing Yerushalayim, ceding territory on the Golan Heights or signing a land swap deal would.

The Jewish Home bill confers on the Referendum Law the status of a Basic Law, which could only canceled by a majority vote of 61 MKs.

Netanyahu indicated that his version of the Referendum Bill will be designed to “strengthen [the existing law] by making it a government bill,” and not by making it a Basic Law.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich dismissed Bennett’s ultimatum as “spin” and accused him of being “very selective” about referendums.

“If they believe that democratic elections aren’t enough, why isn’t there a referendum on the budget? The budget hurts 99 percent of the public, and the public clearly understands economics better than the government,” she stated.

According to Yacimovich, “the whole purpose of a referendum is to torpedo the chances of diplomatic negotiations before they even start.”