Israel P.M. fast-tracking peace referendum bill

Jul 22, 2013, 2:07 PM EDT
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 21, 2013.
(AP Photo/Uriel Sinai, Pool)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's premier announced Monday he is fast-tracking legislation that would allow him to put any future peace deal with the Palestinians to a national referendum.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a referendum is needed to prevent a rift in Israeli society. Polls have suggested a majority of Israelis support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but many groups are vehemently opposed, including hard-liners among Israel's West Bank settlers.

Some issues are particularly explosive, including partition of Jerusalem, home to major religious shrines and claimed by both sides as a capital.

Netanyahu's announcement came three days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said progress has been made toward a resumption of talks following a five-year hiatus.

Kerry invited negotiators to Washington for preliminary talks in the coming days or weeks, though wide gaps remain between the sides on the framework for actual negotiations.

Netanyahu said Monday that he would present proposed legislation soon to his Cabinet and then to parliament, but he did not disclose details of the planned bill.

"Any agreement that is not approved by the people is not worthy of being signed," Netanyahu said in a televised announcement from Israel's parliament.

On an issue as important and fateful as a peace deal, "it is desirable that it be presented to every single citizen to decide," he said.

Israeli politicians are divided on a referendum, seen by some as an attempt by hard-liners to torpedo any deal.

Netanyahu's two main coalition partners, the pro-settler Jewish Home party and the centrist Yesh Atid faction, have said they favor a referendum, indicating easy passage if a bill reaches parliament.

Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, has said she opposes the idea and that important decisions should be left to democratically elected leaders.

Separately, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in comments published Monday that he also plans to a referendum on any possible peace deal, reiterating a long-standing Palestinian position.