Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his plans in a Knesset press conference on Monday, July 22, 2013 that any peace agreement with the Palestinians that would be reached would have to be approved by a referendum, with the public’s vote. Netanyahu is also planning to fast-track a revision of the current referendum law to ensure it cannot be repealed if a peace agreement is on the table.
Netanyahu explained further why it is important to have any peace agreement approved by a vote; “For years, I have said that any diplomatic agreement must be brought to a referendum. An agreement that does not get the authorization of the nation is not worthy of being signed.”
He stated that a peace treaty with the Palestinians was especially important because it “determines destinies,” effecting all Israelis now and in the future. The long term affects have a larger impact than other agreements or peace treaties.
Netanyahu promised to bring the bill first to a cabinet vote than a vote in the Knesset; “I will bring supplementary legislation [on a referendum] to the government and then the Knesset. This is a law that passed in the last Knesset, but we will supplement and strengthen it by making it a government bill.”
The Prime Minister reiterated he comments on the peace talks from his statements on Sunday and Saturday; “Attaining peace is a vital goal for the State of Israel. Peace and security are difficult and complex goals, and we must work toward our vital goals and our security through negotiations. Peace with our neighbors requires peace among ourselves, and the way to ensure this is through a referendum.”
The proposed bill will be presented later this week during an emergency Ministerial Committee for Legislation meeting. The bill is written by Coalition chairman Yariv Levin from Likud Beytenu and MKs Ayelet Shaked and Orit Struck from Bayit Yehudi, Naftali Bennett’s party that is making the bill a priority. Levin hopes to have the meeting on Wednesday to ensure the bill can voted by the cabinet next week.
The proposed bill is a revised version of the 2010 Referendum Law. The 2010 law requires a referendum only when a majority of 80 members of the Knesset did not pass the peace agreement, and is a requirement when giving away land in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights or land swaps, however some areas of the West Bank did not require a vote from the people.
The National Referendum Basic Law proposal that Levin-Shaked- Struck are presenting will turn the present law into a Basic Law; making it a constitutional law, and much more difficult to repeal; 61 MKs would have to vote in favor to end the law. It would guarantee that there would absolutely be a vote in the event of a peace deal. Netanyahu also wants there to be a vote for an land in the West Bank included in any propsed deal; requiring a provision to include land swaps in the Judea and Samaria regions which were not included in the original law.
Netanyahu however, stated he would make the revised referendum law a government bill not a basic law saying he will “strengthen [the existing law] by making it a government bill.” However, most believe that Levin-Shaked- Struck bill will be passed in the same form, but as government legislation.
The new bill however will not probably have it its final reading and passing in the Knesset until the fall session begins on October 13. There is very little time to get anything passed in the Knesset prior to the summer recess which is set to begin August 4.
More is on the line than just passing the referendum bill quickly for a possible peace agreement, Naftali Bennett, the Economics and Trade minister and leader of Bayit Yehudi threatened on Monday that he would not allow the budget to pass unless the law passes. The bill’s fate is now tied to the nation’s economy.
Bennett met with his party telling them; “We will support the budget, but insist that the referendum move forward by then. A referendum is a way to stop the nation from being torn apart.” Bennett is also insistent that the revised law be passed prior to the summer recess.
Bennett during the meeting with MKs from his party pointed to the Oslo Accords from 1993 and disengagement from Gaza in 2005 as past examples where MKs were coerced to agree with the government. Those past attempts for peace actually led to additional violence against Israel from the Palestinians, Israel’s government were trying to appease. Bennett stated; “We remember – it has been 8 years since the disengagement and 20 since Oslo. We will not lend a hand to ‘Mitsubishi agreements… We’re still eating their rotten fruits…. A national referendum is the only way to prevent the country from tearing apart.”
Bayit Yehudi is adamantly against giving any land for peace and also against a Palestinian state, a fact Bennett emphatically stated again during the meeting. Bennett wanted to make clear where he and his party stood, because although Netanyahu has stated in the past about being opposed to the 1967 borders, he was being vague now going into the peace talks however, government officials have declared “the report is untrue,” and Netanyahu has not agreed to those lines as precondition for the talks to precede.
Bennett declared; “Bayit Yehudi opposes a Palestinian state and we oppose giving the Land of Israel to our enemies, period. This is the land of our fathers, and only the people can decide what to do with it. Nothing will go wrong if we hold a referendum on the future of our nation; this will have an effect on future generations, the great-grandchildren of our great grandchildren.”
The country’s more liberal parties have taken a different opinion; most parties on the left have felt that a referendum is just a method to make sure a peace deal never passes. The chief negotiator for Israel and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua party opposes revising the bill and having the public voting on a proposed peace deal. She is also the chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. On Monday Livni stated; “A referendum is a way to prevent what the Knesset and government authorize, since it won’t happen before a decision, but after. I believe in the need and ability to explain decisions the government makes to the public.”
Two other party leaders Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Labour and opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich oppose the referendum because they find it unnecessary when officials elected by the people are making the decisions. Liberman however, said he would vote for the bill if the coalition does.
Yacimovich, however is more vehemently opposed to the concept believing it will impede the peace process; “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…. the whole purpose of a referendum is to torpedo the chances of diplomatic negotiations before they even start. The goal isn’t peace talks. Talks happen so there will be an agreement that will allow us to continue our vision of a Jewish and democratic state.”
Yesh Atid which has the second largest number of seats in the Knesset and its leader Yair Lapid have decided to support the revised referendum bill. In April they had stated that they do not support a referendum, they did not think a revised law is necessary when the talks are barely starting and there is no peace deal immanent. Education Minister Shai Piron, the second ranking member of the party spoke to the press and said; “There are no negotiations with the Palestinians now, so making a decision like this out of the blue would not be right.”
Netanyahu originally announced on July 21, 2013 his intention to pass a revised law, making that statement at the Israel’s weekly Sunday cabinet meeting which was held this week at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem in honor of the 100th anniversary of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s birth. It was the first time since United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s official announcement about an agreement on Friday that Netanyahu has elaborated on how Israel may act with the peace talks.
Netanyahu promised an expedited bill will be passed to ensure all Israelis have the opportunity to vote on any peace agreement that will take place during the negotiations. Netanyahu stated; “I would like to add two things. One, we are committed, to the same degree, to peace and security. We are now making an effort to resume the diplomatic process. I see this as a vital strategic interest of the State of Israel, first of all because we want peace. At the same time, I am committed to two goals, and it must be understood that they must also guide the result, should there be one. First of all, if it will be, it will be put to a referendum. I believe that this is necessary. I do not think that such decisions can be made, if indeed an agreement is achieved, by this or that coalition process; it must be put to the people for a decision.”
The prime minister also discussed his main goals for the peace talks ensuring Israel remains a Jewish state, and that a Palestinian terrorist state is not created; “As for the goals that I am setting for the process itself, one is preventing the creation of a bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, alongside preventing the establishment of another Iranian-sponsored terrorist state. We will need to find a balance between these two things, and our negotiating partners will also need to make concessions that will allow us to maintain our security and uphold our vital national interests.”
Netanyahu reiterated the decision to agree to renewed peace talks was based on Israel’s “vital strategic interests” and its security; “Therefore, these will not be easy negotiations, but we will enter into them with integrity, sincerity and the hope that this process will be conducted responsibly, seriously and substantively, and, I must say, at least in the opening stages, discreetly. This will increase the chances that we will achieve results. Throughout this process, I will strongly uphold, as I already have, the security needs of the State of Israel and [our] other vital interests. We know what we stand for here and on what we are relying; we will continue to stand on these things in the future as well.”
The major point of contention in negotiations is the borders. Both Secretary of State Kerry and the Palestinians are insisting on the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders which would have taken away from Israel, Jerusalem’s old city, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. It would leave the country too narrow in the center and virtually indefensible.
Prime Minister Netanyahu ruled out those borders in May 2011 after President Barack Obama insisted that a Palestinian state be based on those borders, the American President has not stressed those borders further, but apparently his Secretary of State John Kerry supports those borders in the peace process.
Any agreement to the 1967 borders on the part of Netanyahu would have guaranteed a coalition crisis. Naftali Bennett the leader of Bayit Yehudi, Jewish Home Party, which is right leaning, declared his party would take their 12 seats out of the coalition if Netanyahu ever agrees to the 1967 borders. Ayelet Shaked of Bayit Yehudi stated; “As long as we are not giving up our territorial assets, we are staying in the coalition.”
If Bayit Yehudi would abandon the coalition, the government would fall, forcing new elections, however the Labour Party said if there was a peace deal they might join a coalition. Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri of Yesh Atid stated; “If God forbid there be a crisis in the coalition, there is a majority for the peace process in the Knesset and there will be a government that can continue it.” Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich stated though; “We would not want to be the reason peace is not reached.”
Although most of his comments reiterated his initial remarks on Friday, Netanyahu added that a referendum would be held with the vote of all Israelis before any peace deal would be made. Bennett wants Netanyahu to keep to that promise and wants a bill passed in the next 90 days assuring a vote will be held. Bennett stated; “If it was urgent to vote on the universal draft bill or the governance bill, the referendum bill can also be moved ahead quickly.”
The Israeli public has not been pleased with the news about the resumption of peace talks. Polls released earlier in July even before the talks officially resumed showed that Israelis do not have much confidence either that any talks will lead to a peace agreement. Israel Hayom newspaper asked: “If negotiations begin again do you believe that it will be possible to reach a final agreement with the Palestinians?” 71.6 percent answered “no”, and only 21.7 percent thought there was a possibility.
Netanyahu has assured Israelis that there was no agreement to the talks on the 1967 lines nor would the settlements in the West Bank be in danger. The West Bank settlements have also been an issue with the Kerry and the Palestinians. Netanyahu has not made any announcements either about settlement freezes. So far construction for new housing will continue in the West Bank settlements.
In the next couple of days Netanyahu and his cabinet will also be voting to formally renew the peace talks and will vote on the talks precondition of releasing Palestinian prisoners. Netanyahu faces opposition from his own right wing party Likud, to both the talks and the prisoner release. Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher speaking to the media believes the referendum proposal is meant ”to neutralize internal opposition from the right as early as possible.”
Any peace agreement with the Palestinians will affect every Israeli and future generations, putting faith in the elected officials is not enough; the people need to directly have their voices heard on this particular matter, one of Israel’s most important and nation altering decisions. The guarantee of a revised referendum will ensure every Israeli can have their say in the peace process, and it is only fitting that the only democracy in the Middle East decides their political future democratically.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.