Israeli parliament passes trio of controversial laws

Israel’s parliament passed a trio of controversial laws Tuesday and Wednesday, one of which will require a national referendum on almost any peace deal reached with the Palestinians and another that could for the first time force ultra-Orthodox Jews into military service.

The referendum measure adds little to existing law, which states that any deal ceding Israeli territory must be brought to a public vote. But it might present an obstacle to peace if current U.S.-sponsored negotiations ultimately lead to an agreement that includes land swaps — giving Palestinians Israeli land in exchange for retaining Jewish settlements in the West Bank — or any division of Jerusalem, which Israel considers its territory.

All three laws — the third of which raises the number of votes that political parties need to gain a seat in the Knesset, or the Israeli parliament — were based on agreements between governing coalition members and passed with little objection.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose hard-line Jewish Home party joined the coalition on the condition that the referendum law be endorsed, said that taking any peace agreement reached with the Palestinians to the Israeli people is essential.

“The main point of this law is to prevent tearing apart our country by using political maneuvers,” said Bennett, who opposes an independent Palestinian state or the division of Jerusalem. “If there is a decision to give up our lands, then it will have to go back to the people to decide.”

In September, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas also said that he would take any peace deal reached with Israel to the Palestinian people for approval.

Although the referendum law could complicate any eventual peace deal, experts said it might backfire on its supporters.

“They believe that people would not give their agreement to withdraw from the [Palestinian] territories, and the initiative to have a referendum is meant to put a stick in the wheels of the peace process,” said Dana Blander, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “But it might be a double-­edged sword, in the sense that if a referendum approves an agreement, those who are against it will have no legal way to fight it.”

The referendum measure passed hours after the ultra-Orthodox draft law, a bill heralded by its backers as a historic achievement. Supporters say it will address a deep societal imbalance between secular Jews, who must serve in the army between ages 18 and 21, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who study the Torah in state-
funded religious schools called yeshivas and are almost universally exempt from military service.

After the vote, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, wrote on his Facebook page: “To the 543,458 Israel citizens who voted for Yesh Atid, you have succeeded in moving the equality mantle.”

Yesh Atid was elected to the Knesset based on Lapid’s efforts to push the ultra-Orthodox — or haredim, as they are known in Hebrew — to serve in the army and participate more equally in the work force.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders condemned the new law.

This is a black day for the state and for the government,” ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni said. “The State of Israel has lost the right to be called a Jewish and democratic state today. No yeshiva student will enlist, not today and not in the future.”

Despite the rhetoric from ultra-Orthodox leaders, Kimmy Caplan, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, said the new law could bring change.

“If you look at what the ultra-Orthodox leaders have said against using the Internet or smartphones, then you look at what is happening in real life, you realize that not everything they say happens,” he said.

Meanwhile, Caplan said, the main thrust of the law will begin in three years, a long time in Israeli politics.

“Whoever structured this law did not want to confront the haredim during their term, but they could not leave the situation as it is,” he said, adding that the main implementation is likely to come only after the next elections.

Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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