News Analysis: Knesset Tries to Make It Difficult for Syrian Peace Referendum to Pass

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is determined to forge ahead with his troubled peace process despite a dramatic blow from the Knesset.

The Israeli Knesset on Wednesday passed a bill that could kill the chances of a peace deal with Syria.

The bill requires that a referendum by Israelis on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights be approved by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters rather than by the more easily attainable majority of those who actually vote.

Barak had pledged to hold the referendum when and if he reaches a final peace deal with Damascus.

“No parliamentary trick will block the will of the Israeli people,” Barak told a group of Jewish journalists in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Three parties in his governing coalition supported the opposition-sponsored bill.

Wednesday’s vote — 60-53, with one abstention — raised doubts about the stability of Barak’s government and his ability to deliver on the promises he makes when and if the now-suspended negotiations with Syria resume.

When asked how he could continue to govern with coalition partners that voted against his position, Barak said that he would not let them derail the government in its attempt to move forward on the “important issues.”

If passed, the bill would mean that if 80 percent of the electorate turns out to vote in the referendum — a typical Israeli turnout — more than 60 percent of the voters would have to approve it for the peace treaty to go into effect.

At present, according to the polls, the public’s support in the referendum – - even if only a majority of those actually voting is required — is by no means assured.

Meanwhile, Israeli and American officials are denying that a date has been set for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. The statements follow reports in the Arab media of Syrian optimism about renewing talks. Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, said he has a gut feeling negotiations would renew within a month. However, Barak said Wednesday, “I don’t know when and if” talks with Syria will be resumed.

A peace treaty with Syria has to go through three stages: Cabinet approval, passage by 61 of the 120 Knesset members and the referendum.

The legislation must still pass additional Knesset votes and two committees before becoming law. That process can take months, and the bill may never reach that stage.

During the debate prior to Wednesday’s vote, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin attacked the bill as a “racist law,” saying it would assure that the votes of Israel’s Arab minority would not tip the balance in the referendum.

“Those of you who have God in their hearts won’t do this,” he said.

Likud member Silvan Shalom, who introduced the bill, was heckled by Arab legislators when he claimed that “a majority of the people opposes a withdrawal from the Golan.”

Predicting that the bill would be overturned in future Knesset votes, Barak also expressed confidence that the Israeli people would pass a peace referendum by a “landslide.”

Just the same, the support the bill got from three of Barak’s coalition partners — the immigrant-rights Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, the National Religious Party and the fervently Orthodox Shas Party — was a blow to Barak’s prestige.

Under their coalition agreements with Barak, the right-leaning Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and NRP can vote according to their conscience on political matters.

But Barak brought Shas, the third-largest party in the Knesset, into his government with the hope that its politically moderate views would provide backing for his peace policies.

Wednesday’s vote threw into stark relief the ideological and political strains within Barak’s government.

“This coalition is not a natural coalition,” Education Minister Yossi Sarid, a member of the leftwing Meretz Party, told Israel Radio.

“Within this coalition, there are some parties who do not have a particularly deep commitment to this government. To the best of my memory, they did not even vote for this prime minister.”

Electoral reforms implemented in 1996, which mandated separate elections for prime minister and the Knesset, created a situation in which special interest parties gained strength and made it more difficult for the prime minister to form an ideologically united coalition.

(JTA Editor Lisa Hostein in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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