Tuesday, July 01, 2008

New law stipulates: Territorial withdrawal only by referendum

Shahar Ilan and Eli Ashkenazi, Haaretz Correspondents

The Knesset approved on Monday the referendum law, which mandates a national referendum or a two thirds Knesset majority prior to a withdrawal from any territory under Israeli territory. The law was approved in its first reading by a majority of 65 MKs to 18. The vote came as indirect peace talks were underway between Israel and Syria, revolving around the Syrian demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, in return for peace. A third round of talks was to begin this week.

Earlier Monday, the "Golan Lobby" convened at the Knesset ahead of the vote. The meeting was attended by Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), who said that the law is a positive and important measure, though his party generally opposes holding referendums.

"I think that talk about [pulling out of the Golan] Heights cause great damage to the residents," Yishai said. "Anything we can do to help is a blessing and is required and therefore we will support the law."

An existing law already mandates a referendum before ceding any territory under Israeli sovereignty, but it also states that this requirement will not apply until a Basic Law detailing the procedures for holding a referendum is passed. The current law eliminated the need to enact a Basic Law. Instead, it requires that territorial concessions be approved by a national referendum or general elections or a majority of 80 Knesset members.

Golan Lobby Chairman MK Yisrael Katz said that it was extremely important that the law was approved, in order to make it clear that attempts to hand over the Golan will be followed by the tedious procedure of a referendum. "There is an important message here, especially while negotiations are underway," Katz said.

Opposition Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu said the "in Western countries, giving up land is impossibly difficult, and in tiny little Israel, governments can relinquish land with unbearable ease. This is something that must be rectified, and the law can do that."

MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said that negotiations over the Golan Heights were a crime. "Giving up the Golan would be a national disaster that the Zionist endeavor will not recover from," he said.

Deputy Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) said "the Knesset needs to learn from its own history? this law sends a clear message that the decision will be approved by the people, without outside considerations, tricks or political bribes."

MK David Tal (Kadima), the chairman of the special committee that prepared the law, said Sunday that "if the referendum law is approved by less than 65 MKs, I will view it as a personal failure."


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