Knesset votes in favor of 'Golan bill'

Despite reservations, Ba

The Knesset took a step closer toward requiring a referendum that could make territorial concessions in the capital and the Golan Heights more difficult, when it voted Wednesday to waive an initial reading of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem Referendum Bill. The bill now goes for further processing in committee, after which it would need to pass second and third readings in the plenum, a procedure that could take several months. Polls have shown that, were such a referendum mandatory, there would be strong opposition to concessions in Jerusalem and the Golan. The bill would require that any return of land under the administration and judicial authority of the State of Israel pass a national referendum, as well as a government decision and Knesset approval. The bill does, however, offer the government a way out - in the event that the concession passes the Knesset by a two-thirds majority, or if within 180 days after the Knesset okays the government decision, a general election is held. The bill does not apply to Judea and Samaria, which was never annexed by Israel, and would have no impact on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's 10-month construction moratorium. Netanyahu's associates expressed satisfaction with the 68-22 majority in Wednesday's vote, which they said "proved that there is a consensus in the country." They criticized Kadima leader Tzipi Livni for joining Meretz and Labor rebel MKs in the minority. Coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin called the decision "historic." He said "the citizens of this country can now sleep soundly knowing that in any future decision to relinquish territory, the public will have its say, and the Mitsubishi trick [of purchasing an MK's vote] that allowed the Oslo II Accord to pass [in 1995] will never be able to be used again." Defense Minister Ehud Barak drew fire from his own party Wednesday after he and two of his allies were the only faction members to vote in favor. Barak's vote came shortly after he had voiced reservations about the bill. "The bill isn't necessary for two reasons," he said in a press release. "First, it imposes additional constraints on the prime minister and those responsible for negotiations with Syria, which are important to Israel. A law like this also gives a bad impression to the world, as though Israel does not want peace." The second reason, continued Barak, is that "a referendum is a complicated constitutional matter, which stands to block progress." But after Meretz threatened to make the vote into a no-confidence poll, Barak said Labor would have no choice but to support the bill. Barak maintained his support, even after it was clear that Meretz had not actualized its threat. A Barak associate said following the vote that "the defense minister realized it was not a no-confidence vote. He voted in favor because it was the position of the government and the prime minister, and he has a responsibility as a minister to vote in favor. Yet he still opposes a referendum." But Labor rebel and Barak adversary MK Eitan Cabel promised sanctions against his chairman in response to the vote. Cabel said he would renew his proposal of a law combating women's draft evasion, a bill he said Barak had begged him to put off out of fears of a coalition crisis. Haredi parties in the coalition are adamant in their opposition to Cabel's bill, and the bill would back non-haredi coalition MKs into a corner, trapped between ideology and political necessity. "Barak got screwed," said Cabel, using a term that, in Hebrew, rhymes with the defense minister's last name. "Barak zigzagged the Labor Party like crazy and brought shame to what is left of the party." The vote to resume legislation of the bill crossed coalition-opposition lines, with over one-third of Kadima MKs supporting the bill, but with the majority of Labor ministers conspicuously absent from the vote. Other than Barak, only deputy defense minister Matan Vilna'i and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer provided Labor voices in support of the bill. Ben-Eliezer said afterwards that he had consistently supported referenda. "The Labor ministers proved their ideological bankruptcy with their vote," chastised Meretz chairman Haim Oron. All rank-and-file Labor MKs - rebels and non-rebels alike - who were present voted against the bill. Some Labor ministers, however, took a different tack. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, Minorities Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman and Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog were all absent. Earlier in the day, during a radio interview, Braverman said that he "didn't know how he would act" with regard to the vote. However, he arranged in advance for his vote to be paired off with an opposition member, a practice usually accepted as an alternative to participating in a controversial vote. Kadima, which initially proposed the bill three years ago, was almost evenly divided among those absent, those opposing and those supporting it. Livni opposed the bill, together with seven other MKs, while MK Shaul Mofaz supported it, together with another nine MKs. Livni argued that the people of Israel could not make decisions in place of the government they themselves had elected. Following the vote, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said that he did not think the bill would harm any future peace process. Earlier Wednesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman denied a connection between progress in restarting peace talks with Syria and the bill. There was no official Syrian response to the Knesset vote. However, unofficial sources in Damascus said the law reflected the "extreme tendencies of the Israeli parliament." They told the BBC-Arabic service that "Israel has already annexed the Golan Heights after conquering the area, and as far as we are concerned, [the referendum law] makes no difference; every action that Israel would take in the Golan Heights is illegitimate. "Israel cannot hold a referendum on land that it does not own," the sources said. Yehuda Harel, a resident of Kibbutz Merom Golan, near the Syrian-Israeli border, told Israel Radio that the people living in the Golan "continue as usual" and would do so even without the referendum law. Harel, an activist and one of the heads of the "Israel with the Golan" campaign from the 1990s, is one of the founding members of the kibbutz, which was established on June 14, 1967. Merom Golan is one of the Israeli communities nearest the border and is only 5 kilometers west of the Syrian town of Kuneitra. "The law signifies the consensus over the Heights. We are calm and unworried," Harel said. He added that in his opinion, Israelis would not change their minds about the Golan Heights even if negotiations with Syria were to proceed and reach an advanced point. "Polls, people we meet and the amount of people who come to live here prove that the Heights are a part of Israel," he said. Harel also said that news reports concerning the Golan Heights had no influence on the residents' day-to-day lives. "It's like the weather - it changes every few months, but has no influence over us." He said Syria would one day forgo its demands, and "as it has recognized that the Alexandretta is Turkish and pulled its forces out of Lebanon, it will recognize the Golan [is Israeli]." He rejected a notion of returning the land to Syria but leasing the territory from Damascus long-term in any future peace deal, saying, "We will not rent the Golan from any foreign party." In the event of a referendum, he said, "we have no doubt what the results would be - and since the Syrians know, too, the mere enactment of referendum legislation will make it unnecessary to actually hold one." Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.