The cabinet on Sunday approved the draft of a bill mandating a national referendum if an accord with the Palestinians is reached that necessitates withdrawals from part of Jerusalem or land swaps. The bill will be brought to the Knesset for a vote on Wednesday.
"Any agreement, if it is achieved in negotiations, will be brought as a referendum. It is important that every citizen will directly vote on fateful decisions like these that determine the future of the state," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said during the meting.
The only two ministers to oppose the bill were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz, both from Hatnua.
The bill, which is to be a basic law, will essentially say that any change in the status of territories where Israeli law applies will have to be brought before the country in the form of a referendum after the move passes the government and the Knesset.
The bill does not, however, call for a referendum on an agreement that calls for the transfer of any parts of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians, although there is some talk now of perhaps legislating a bill to that regard as well.
Under the bill the cabinet approved Sunday, for instance, the disengagement from Gaza would not have had to come before the country for approval, nor would any future decision to uproot settlements in the West Bank as part of an accord that did not include altering the status of Jerusalem or involve any "land swap".
Discussion on prisoner release still ongoing
The approval came during the cabinet meeting that is expected to pave the way for the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians this week in Washington. The cabinet is also expected to vote on whether to release Palestinian prisoners as part of the negotiations. That discussion is still ongoing.
The vote on the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture ahead of renewed peace talks was delayed for over an hour Sunday morning as Netanyahu sought to secure enough support for the move, in the face of internal pressure from within his own Likud party.
In an attempt to neutralize the strong opposition within his party, Netanyahu made a distinction between Israeli Arab prisoners and other prisoners, saying a decision to release the former would be made separately and brought to an additional vote.
At the opening of the cabinet meeting the prime minister said that this was a tough day for him and for the families of victims killed by the terrorists on the list of prisoners intended for release. Despite that, he said, repeating the statement he made in an open letter to the citizens of Israel on Saturday, difficult decisions must be made "for the good of the nation."
The prime minister also said that a committee to be made up of himself, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, and Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, a former Shin Bet head, will be established to determine which prisoners will released, and when.
The release of the prisoners is expected to be spread out over the expected nine months of the negotiations, set to begin Tuesday in Washington between Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and special envoy Yitzhak Molho and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Likud ministers face internal pressure
Likud ministers faced pressure from within the party to vote against the release of the prisoners. Army Radio on Sunday morning quoted a letter to ministers from a senior member of the Likud party, Meir Dahan, saying that they were freeing "the murderers of Jews with unbearable ease" as part of negotiations without any preconditions.
Likud ministers said Netanyahu had pressured them to support the prisoner release. But Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told The Jerusalem Post he intended to vote against it.
“I cannot vote to free terrorist murderers, harm bereaved families, and encourage terror,” Katz said.
“I made my view very clear a week ago, so there is no point in pressuring me.”
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett announced that his party’s ministers would vote against the prisoner release. A source close to a Yisrael Beytenu minister said the party’s ministers would be permitted by their leader, Avigdor Liberman, to vote according to their conscience.
Deputy ministers Danny Danon (Likud) and Avi Wortzman (Bayit Yehudi) called upon ministers to vote against the proposal, which Wortzman called “dangerous and senseless.”
Land of Israel Caucus co-chairmen Yariv Levin (Likud) and Orit Struck (Bayit Yehudi) called the proposal “a shameful surrender to terror.”
“Israel is surrendering yet again,” Levin and Struck said in a joint statement. “The pace in which the government is backtracking from its declared positions before the talks have begun is very worrying.”
In a letter, addressed to Likud ministers, Danon wrote, “This sets a future standard for Israel of far-reaching compromises in the face of ridiculous requests from the other side.”
The government was also expected to vote on a referendum bill for any territorial exchange that would be part of a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.