x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Israeli referendum a new obstacle to peace talks

The new territorial concessions law makes agreement with Syria or the Palestinians more challenging as it applies to East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator, denounces the new law at a news conference in Ramallah yesterday.
Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator, denounces the new law at a news conference in Ramallah yesterday.

TEL AVIV // Israel's peace talks with the Palestinians, already on the verge of collapse over a settlement construction dispute, are likely to face a further hurdle with a new referendum law passed by the country's parliament.

The legislation, approved late on Monday by a vote of 65 to 33, calls for any territorial concessions on Israeli-annexed territory to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the 120-member parliament. Failing that, the concessions would then be subject to a national referendum.

The new law will probably make any future Israeli agreements with the Palestinians or with Syria more challenging because it applies to East Jerusalem and to the Golan Heights, Palestinian officials and analysts said.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator for the government in the West Bank, said it made "a mockery of international law," under which Israel was required to withdraw from territory occupied in 1967. He added: "Ending the occupation of our land is not and cannot be dependent on any sort of referendum."

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East War and soon afterward annexed the area, which it views as part of its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Israel also conquered the Golan from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed the territory, which Syria wants back in any pact, in 1981.

"This law will make the peace process more complicated," said Asher Cohen, a political science professor at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. "No prime minister conducting negotiations on behalf of Israel will be able to conclude a peace deal without it first going to a referendum."

Experts said that a referendum was probable in any pact involving giving up East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights since obtaining a two-thirds majority support on that in Israel's mostly right-wing parliament would be difficult.

The measure will not affect the occupied West Bank because Israel has not annexed it.

The law, which was supported by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and initiated by a member of his right-wing Likud party, comes at a fragile diplomatic period for Israel. Mr Netanyahu's predominantly pro-settler, hard-line government is under pressure from the US, Israel's most powerful ally, to temporarily extend a freeze over settlement construction in a bid to revive suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.

Such a law, analysts said, was unlikely to soothe growing tensions with the US over the settlement freeze or help return the Palestinians, who refuse to conduct talks without an Israeli building moratorium, to the negotiating table.

Indeed, Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister and the only centrist member of Mr Netanyahu's coalition, yesterday warned that the legislation would hurt Israel's image at a sensitive time.

"This is not a good law, certainly not these days," Mr Barak said during a conference. "Israel's enemies could use it to claim that Israel refuses to make peace and chains its hands in order to avoid a peace process."

Some Palestinian analysts said that with the law, Israel was conveying a message to the Palestinians that it would oppose any land-for-peace deals, including in the West Bank.

"This will be a defensive Israeli tool in the face of US pressure," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. "It will make any territorial concessions impossible. Nobody could reach a two-thirds parliamentary majority in Israel on the Palestinian issue. And a referendum would be difficult as well because settlers and their supporters will try to influence public opinion."

Nevertheless, some Israeli analysts said the law may actually facilitate any future peace agreements Mr Netanyahu may try to advance.

Orit Galili-Zucker, a political scientist, said Mr Netanyahu's support for the legislation showed that he may be preparing to overcome right-wing opposition to a possible deal.

While the premier was unlikely to muster the required 80-member parliamentary majority to avoid a referendum on territorial concessions, he would be able to draw support from a razor-thin majority of 61 members - mostly from centre- and left-wing parties - for ceding land, according to Mrs Galili-Zucker. He could then use such backing to help convince the Israeli public to vote in a referendum in favour of giving up territory, she added.

"All opinion polls show that a majority of the Israeli public would support a Palestinian state," Mrs Galili-Zucker said. "Especially in Israel, when a prime minister comes from the Right, he has better chances of advancing such an agreement."

She pointed out that Israelis showed overwhelming support for Menachem Begin, a former prime minister from the Likud party, when he embarked on a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 that involved territorial concessions.

"For Netanyahu, this law is a manoeuvring tool in the case that he'll go for a historical agreement. I don't know if he'll go that way, but he looks to be preparing the groundwork."