The Knesset passed the National Referendum Law during a late-night session Monday, approving legislation that will fundamentally alter Israeli negotiators’ ability to offer concrete peace deals involving the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem.
The law, which was approved by a vote of 65-33, will require either a Knesset super-majority or a national referendum in order to hand over any annexed territories as part of a future peace deal.
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“A law like this will prevent irresponsible accords in the future, and on the other hand, will allow governments to pass with strong public support any agreement that will answer Israel’s national interests,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in support of the legislation. The prime minister added that he was convinced that any accord he brought would get this backing.
Before the bill was even passed, Peace Now promised that it would appeal
the law to the High Court of Justice, arguing that it was
The additional legal pressure raised the bar for the coalition, which
sought to pass the law with the support of 61 or more MKs, as is
required for an amendment to a Basic Law, in order to stave off the
claim that the law was not binding.
The law, which was sponsored in the current Knesset by House Committee
Chairman Yariv Levin (Likud), would add additional roadblocks en route
to any peace agreement that included handing over areas annexed by
Israel. Both the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem fit that category, but
the West Bank has never been annexed and placed under civil authority.
Should a government seek to hand over annexed areas, the Knesset would
first have to approve the transfer. If the Knesset approved it by 80
votes or more, then a national referendum would not be held, but if the
Knesset approved by less than a twothirds majority, the question of the
hand-over would have to be put up for a national referendum. The
referendum must be held within 90 days of the original Knesset vote.
If the general elections were scheduled to be held within that 90-day
period, then the referendum and the elections would be held
simultaneously, but with voting carried out through two separate
ballots. Every citizen who is legally entitled to vote in national
elections would be able to participate in the referendum, the results of
which would be determined by a simple majority of participants.
The bill also gives a general format for the question that will be asked
in every referendum, and mandates that the answers be offered in the
form of “for” and “against.”
Beyond setting up the conditions and format of the referendum, the new
law also delineates the technical parameters for holding a national
referendum, a previously unheard-of concept within the Israeli electoral
system. Referendum day, unlike election day, will not be considered a
day off for employers, but the elections committee in charge of the
referendum will be granted a wide range of powers, similar to the
Central Elections Committee that oversees Knesset elections.
The law discusses campaign advertising for the referendum, part of which
is based on the existing campaign advertising laws for Knesset
elections, but other aspects of which – including a clause forbidding
television advertisements – are significantly different.
The bill, which was originally sponsored in the 17th Knesset by Kadima
MKs, was initially expected to pass the Knesset by a wide margin, with
cross-aisle support coming from both the National Union and Kadima. But
during Kadima’s weekly Monday faction meeting, the faction voted to
unanimously oppose the bill, even though several prominent Kadima MKs,
including Shaul Mofaz, voted in favor of the bill in its first reading.
“The question today concerns national referendums in general and not the
specific topic presented as part of this bill. There is a question of
principle here, and it has nothing to do with who wants to give away
parts of Israel,” Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni told her faction during
“These are decisions that leaders who understand the scale of the
problems and are exposed to all of its aspects are supposed to make. The
public is not a substitute for good leadership,” she said.
Livni slammed Netanyahu, describing him as “a weak prime minister who
finds it comfortable to be constrained,” and argued that the law “has
nothing to do with Right and Left, but rather about how decisions are
made in this democracy. There is one national referendum, and it is
Livni complained that “this is not a about asking the nation, but about
giving a veto to decisions made by the elected government and the
A large number of Kadima MKs, including Mofaz, indicated that they would
not participate in Monday’s vote, rather than vote against the measure.
The hours before the law’s approval also displayed key cracks within the coalition.
Initially, during their weekly faction meeting, Defense Minister Ehud
Barak tried to convince Labor to vote in support of the referendum while
coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) pressured Labor MKs to support
the law, warning that coalition discipline would be enforced during the
final votes and that sanctions would be imposed on any party that
violated the discipline.
Labor noncompliance would threaten the peace process, Barak admonished
his party. Failure to support the Referendum Law could threaten Labor’s
membership in the government and thus threaten the future of the
proposed settlement-building freeze, he said. He acknowledged, however,
that the law would be an “obstacle to peace.”
But with well over half of the faction opposing the bill, Barak first
asked Netanyahu to delay the vote, and then, when he did not get the
extension, announced that Labor would grant its MKs and ministers
freedom from coalition discipline, allowing them to vote against it.
Barak himself, as well as Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac
Herzog, Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman and Industry, Trade
and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, all planned to be absent from
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.