Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is promoting legislation that would mandate a referendum on any future peace deal with the Palestinians, saying Sunday that a public vote on the matter would be "imperative" and that "decisions of this magnitude cannot be made only by the coalition."
Israel's Referendum Law, enacted in 2010, mandates that any future peace agreement that involves ceding sovereign Israeli territory, such as in Jerusalem or in the Golan Heights, would be put to a public vote. Netanyahu now seeks to amend the law to include Judea and Samaria.
The prime minister has asked Cabinet Secretary attorney Avichai Mendelblit to prepare a bill to that effect, based on a similar bill that was presented by MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) in March. Akunis' bill passed its preliminary reading, but has yet to go through any other legislative stage.
The Prime Minister's Office said that the bill "is meant to promote the peace process and reflects the prime minister's earnestness in the matter. … The issue [of a referendum] is detailed in the coalition agreement, and is part of the government's policy."
The government guidelines, the Prime Minister's Office said, state that "Israel will pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority with the aim of reaching a diplomatic solution that will end the conflict with the Palestinian people. In the event that such an agreement is achieved, it will be presented to the government and the Knesset for approval, and should the need arise, to the public as well via referendum."
A source close to Netanyahu said that the prime minister would ask his cabinet "to empower him to renew the diplomatic process with the Palestinians" according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's delineated proposal, including the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners.
"This is an imperative move. Decisions of this magnitude cannot be made only by the coalition," Netanyahu said of the referendum Sunday, during a cabinet meeting held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu told the cabinet that his main objectives in the negotiations would be "preventing the creation of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as well as preventing the creation of another Iran-sponsored terror state. We will have to find a way to balance these needs, and our partners in these negotiations will have to make concessions that will allow us to maintain our vital interests."
Another source close to Netanyahu said the prime minister would present the issue of the prisoners' release to the cabinet in the coming days. Israel has agreed, in principle, to release 85 Palestinian prisoners who are considered "heavyweight terrorists" in four stages, according to the talks' progress.
A security source said that since all the prisoners slated for released were jailed prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel could afford to release them as a goodwill gesture to the PA.
Political experts said that Netanyahu's agreement to resume the negotiations is unlikely to destabilize the coalition, despite threats to the contrary by several government hardliners, who vehemently oppose the prisoners' release.
"I'm not opposed to the notion of negotiations but I remain loyal to the Likud's official position, which opposes establishing a [Palestinian] state," Deputy Defense Minister MK Zeev Elkin (Likud) said Sunday.
"Sticking to our principles has paid off," said Habayit Hayehudi Chairman MK Naftali Bennett. "We have proven that when we stand our ground we can hold peace talks without preconditions, without a settlement freeze and certainly without the demand to base them on the 1967 borders. We are on this path with our eyes wide open. We are not naive."
Party sources said that Bennett plans to demand a referendum in exchange for Habayit Hayehudi's support of the state budget. According to Israel Radio, Bennett told close associates that his demand for a referendum was "moral and ideological" and that it was "Habayit Hayehudi's duty to prevent a rift among the people."
The report quoted another source as saying "Habayit Hayehudi will not leave [Justice Minister Tzipi] Livni to head the negotiations by herself."
Army Radio quoted Livni saying Monday that "an agreement will have implications that could result in the need to evacuate people from their homes. If someone has a relative that is about the be evicted, how will he vote? A decision [to hold a referendum] might bring more opponents than supporters out to the streets."
Opposition Leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) stated that her party would lend Netanyahu its support on the matter. Yachimovich, who met with President Shimon Peres on Sunday, said that "Netanyahu can consider himself politically safe from elements in the radical Right."
Peres praised Netanyahu's "brave decision on the negotiations," saying the majority of Israelis and Palestinians desires peace. Peres also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, and lauded his decision to resume the peace talks.
"There is no other solution but to pursue peace," Peres said. "We cannot exist without peace. Netanyahu has made a brave and complicated decision and Abu-Mazen [Abbas] has also shown courage and will soon be the father of the new and modern Palestinian state."
The Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams are scheduled to meet next week in Washington. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has been named as mediator for the talks.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians downplayed the move. In an interview with the Voice of Palestine radio station, Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo said Sunday that Ramallah had yet to officially decide on whether it would resume negotiations with Israel, and that the matter still hinged on "essential issues."
Rabbo said that the PA was waiting for several clarifications from the U.S., adding that "all questions are supposed to be answered" in a the meeting planned for next week in Washington between chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli negotiators Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho.