Knesset passes J'lem-Golan National Referendum Law

Bill approved by vote of 65-33 now requires either Knesset super-majority or a national referendum in order to hand over any annexed territories.

Knesset winter session 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Knesset winter session 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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 unconstitutional.
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 the meeting.
“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 general elections.”
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 Knesset.”
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 the vote.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.