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World News

Israeli parliament approves referendum-for-peace law

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s parliament approved on Monday a measure backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which could require a referendum on potential land-for-peace deals concluded with Arab neighbors.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem November 22, 2010. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Critics argued the bill, which was passed after a seven-hour debate by a vote of 65 to 33, could further complicate U.S.-backed talks with the Palestinians, stalled for weeks over the issue of Jewish settlement building.

But some analysts saw the legislation as a way for Netanyahu to build a cogent legislative framework for approval of any future peace deal.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, denounced the measure as a “mockery of international law” and urged nations to respond by recognizing Palestinian statehood on all West Bank land Israel occupied in a 1967 war.

The Israeli law calls for putting any treaty involving a withdrawal from Israeli-annexed land to a public vote, in the event that Israel’s parliament has not approved the deal in question by a two-thirds majority.

It would cover any agreements involving a pullback from occupied land Israel has already annexed -- East Jerusalem, or the Golan Heights captured from Syria.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state in the West Bank, but Israel sees it as a part of its undivided capital, and it could prove difficult to win Israeli public backing to relinquish even parts of the holy city.

Palestinian leaders have also said they would seek to hold a referendum on any deal with Israel. Trying to get an agreement with the Jewish state approved by a majority in Hamas-ruled Gaza or the Palestinian diaspora may also prove difficult.

While the Israeli measure would not apply to the West Bank, Netanyahu’s political allies have said they would seek to apply it to accords over that territory as well.

NETANYAHU PLUGS BILL

Netanyahu’s allies lobbied for votes among squabbling coalition partners, including the left-of-center Labour party, most of whose ministers were absent from the vote.

In a statement, Netanyahu praised the decision to hold a referendum within 90 days of a parliamentary vote on a treaty as destined to “reduce controversies and tensions.”

Netanyahu also said in his statement he thought Israelis would “support any peace agreement that answers national interests and Israeli security needs.”

Erekat said Israel was obliged to withdraw from occupied land regardless of how its public voted, calling the parliamentary decision “Israel’s attempt to veil its oppression of the Palestinian people as an exercise of Israeli democracy.”

Despite Palestinian anger, some Israeli analysts saw a referendum as giving Netanyahu greater maneuverability to overcome far-right opponents of yielding West Bank land which they see as a biblical birthright.

They noted how the Israeli public overwhelmingly rallied behind past prime ministers to support peace agreements in 1979 with Egypt and a 1994 deal with Jordan, despite the territorial concessions they entailed.

Orit Galili-Zucker, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, thought “the advantages of a referendum may outweigh the disadvantages. Netanyahu could use it as a way to win wider support for a deal.”

Others thought it may help perpetuate diplomatic stalemate.

Tamir Sheafer, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he thought right-wing Israeli politicians had orchestrated “a tactical maneuver aimed at making it even more difficult to advance in the negotiations.”

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)

Editing by Douglas Hamilton and David Stamp

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