A new measure potentially requiring Israel to receive public approval before surrendering land in any Middle East peace deal came under fire Tuesday for setting a legal precedent that could undermine the government and further complicate negotiations.
Israel's conservative-majority Knesset, or parliament, adopted the controversial legislation late Monday after a heated debate. Passage was seen by many as an effort by right-wing parties to put the brakes on future peace deals with the Palestinians or Syrians by making it harder for Israel to give up land it seized during the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed.
Under the new measure, returning all or part of East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights — a tradeoff envisioned under peace proposals — would need to be approved by a public vote if the Knesset didn't endorse it by a two-thirds vote. The legislation only applies to what Israel regards as sovereign land, so withdrawal from the West Bank, which was never annexed, would not come under the measure.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement in support of the referendum, saying it would "prevent irresponsible accords in the future" and give Israelis a greater voice. Netanyahu is currently trying to nudge his right-leaning government to renew building restrictions on Jewish settlements in the West Bank in an effort to restart stalled U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians.
But opposition leader Tzipi Livni accused Netanyahu of "weak leadership," saying the complicated peace process is ill-suited to the restraints of a simple "yes-or-no" referendum because negotiations call for tough compromises.
"These are decisions that a leadership that comprehends the entirety of the problem and is familiar with all the aspects has to make," Livni told leaders of her Kadima party during the pre-vote debate. "The people are not a substitute for the need for such leadership."
As a practical impediment to peace deals, the new measure may be largely symbolic since it can be repealed or exempted in the Knesset with a simple majority. Legal experts also questioned whether the new legislation would pass muster with the Supreme Court, since it was passed as an ordinary law rather than a so-called basic law, which would have made it part of Israel's de facto constitution.
But politicians and legal analysts nevertheless warned that the law's reliance on a referendum process — something that Israel has never before implemented — could lay the foundation for using public votes on other hot-button issues, further polarizing Israel's partisan split and bypassing elected governments.
Though the current law only covers land withdrawals, political activists might later seek to use the referendum process for other issues, such as the military draft, civil rights for Arab Israelis, government grants to religious students and evacuation of West Bank settlements.
"This is a slippery slope," said constitutional law expert Suzie Navot, head of the public law division at Israel's College of Management Academic Studies Law School. She added that the law, which she predicted would be overturned, could backfire on lawmakers by reducing their role in government.
"The Knesset is weakening itself in this case, bypassing itself," she said.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were among those who voiced opposition to the law Tuesday.
Supporters of the law noted that referendums are used in Western democracies, including the United States and European nations.
"The Israeli public is involved, proficient and responsible, and I trust that when the time for a decision comes, it will support a peace agreement which meets the state of Israel's national interests and security needs," Netanyahu said.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat criticized the new law, saying decisions about withdrawals from land annexed by Israel were a matter of international law and not "subject to the whims of Israeli public opinion."
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.