News Analysis: Israel's new referendum law stirs controversy

November 25, 2010 11:51 am 

by Adam Gonn

JERUSALEM, Nov. 25 — By 63 votes in favor and 35 against, the 120 members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted in favor of a new pullout referendum law earlier this week.

According to the law, any withdrawal needs to win the approval of at least 80 Knesset members or it will be put to a national referendum. The new law applies to the territory annexed by Israel in the aftermath of the 1967 war, namely East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, regarded by the international community as occupied lands.

While Israel defines Jerusalem as its "eternal and indivisible" capital, the Palestinians see the eastern part of the city as the future capital of their independent state that would also include the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.

Analysts told Xinhua Wednesday that, while initially the law was designed to hinder peace, it is not set in stone and in the future it could be revoked.

FOCUSING ON JERUSALEM

The idea of a law requiring a referendum before any withdrawal is not new in Israel. A law already exists that demands a referendum before any departure from the Golan Heights. It was adopted during the 1990s when Israel was negotiating with Syria.

But the new addition which applies to Jerusalem makes the law more complicated than the previous one.

Galia Golan, a professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, told Xinhua that while the new law is an obstacle to peace, it can be overturned.

"It's another barrier towards any kind of an agreement, it's quite clear that any future deal has to deal with Jerusalem," Golan said.

According to Golan, the main problem with the new law is that it singles out Jerusalem in any future peace agreement. So even if there will be an agreement sometime in the future, there still needs to be a vote on Jerusalem.

While polls show the Israelis would vote in favor of a complete peace agreement, the vote would swing if Jerusalem was voted on separately, Golan said.

When asked whether Israelis tend to be more willing to accept of handing over land to the Palestinians if it's part of a larger peace agreement, Golan said that "the good news is that this is not a basic law and can thus be changed."

She added that while the current Knesset would most likely vote against any deal, this may change after the next general election.

Prior to the signing on the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Knesset held a two-day debate on the issue which ended with a vote of confidence for then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with 61 in favor, 50 against and eight abstentions.

A PALESTINIAN CONCERN

In the eyes of Naji Shurab, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, there are many ways to read the new law.

According to Shurab, there can only be a real peace if it is the will of the people. He suggested that Israeli leaders follow the example of Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has promised to take any future peace deal with Israel to a popular vote among the Palestinians.

"It is the right of any people to say if they want peace or not. If the Israeli people will really want peace then they will be responsible for the peace," he said.

However, Shurab is concerned about what he perceives as growing shift to the right in the Israeli society and the increased influence of the settlers living in the West Bank. He said this would reduce the chance of approval for any future deal.

This trend might influence the negotiations, Shurab said, arguing that there is a possibility that Israeli leaders might become less serious in their efforts to reach an agreement if they know that it will be rejected by their people.

But Samir Awwad, a professor of international relations at the Palestinian Birzeit University, told Xinhua that the comparison between the new law and the referendum proposed by Abbas is flawed.

"There is no comparison between people who want their world- recognized right to independence and self-determination and another state that wants to gain more land and more settlements," Awwad said.

AN INTERNATIONAL ANGLE

Stefan Talmon, an expert on international law at University of Oxford, told Xinhua that the Israeli case is not unique. He said there have been cases in the past where countries have added a clause before considering ending an occupation or annexation.

The main difference between the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem compared to the rest of the West Bank is that since these two areas have been annexed, they are governed by the same laws as the rest of Israel and its inhabitants have similar rights. The rest of the West Bank, on the other hand, is under Israeli military rule.

"In international legal terms, the whole referendum makes no sense at all," Talmon said. "It's a pure Israeli matter that has no repercussions for the international legal situation."

He added that according to international law both the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem are illegally occupied and illegally annexed; there are United Nations General Assembly resolutions to that effect. (PNA/Xinhua)

ALM/ebp

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