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Netanyahu wants vote on any peace deal

Critics say plan could impede an agreement

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on Thursday that any peace agreement with the Palestinians should be put to a referendum, a move that some Israelis view as a potential obstacle to a deal even as Secretary of State John Kerry works intently to renew long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Netanyahu’s statement came as his special envoy, Isaac Molho, and Tzipi Livni, Israel’s minister of justice, who holds a special portfolio dealing with the peace process in the new government, were in Washington for a meeting with Kerry. An Israeli government official said the trip was meant chiefly to update the parties and suggested that it was not indicative of any breakthrough.

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The Israeli envoys were scheduled to meet later Thursday with Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, in New York.

As part of the peace effort, Kerry embraced a proposal earlier this week by the Arab League to revive the Arab Peace Initiative, introduced in 2002, and to ease its demand that Israel return to its pre-1967 boundaries by accepting the possibility of minor and mutually agreed-upon land swaps.

But Netanyahu has not endorsed the idea of land swaps and rejects any mention of the 1967 lines as the basis for talks. He has not commented on the new Arab League proposal but has reiterated his stance in recent days that talks should resume with no preconditions.

The Palestinians are not opposed to Israel’s holding a referendum and plan to hold one of their own should the sides arrive at an agreement.

But Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said , ‘‘I think that Mr. Netanyahu should focus first on achieving peace and then on submitting it to a referendum.’’

‘I think that Mr. Netanyahu should focus first on achieving peace.’

Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator, calling for a deal based on 1967 lines 
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Reflecting the continuing impasse between the sides, Erekat added that he hoped that Netanyahu would specify his willingness ‘‘for two states on the 1967 lines.’’

Netanyahu’s remarks in favor of a referendum, widely viewed as a nod to rightists in his governing coalition who are pressing for new legislation on the matter, came at the start of a meeting in Jerusalem with Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter of Switzerland.

‘‘There are a few things that I think we can learn from you, and one of them is the referendum,’’ Netanyahu told Burkhalter. ‘‘Not for every issue; not on every point of debate; but on one thing: That is, if we get to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I’d like to bring it to a referendum. And I’d like to talk to you about your experiences with that, and many other things.’’

Burkhalter replied that Netanyahu was welcome to visit Switzerland any time and learn about that country’s experience with referendums.

Left-leaning Israeli supporters of a peace deal have long argued that a referendum could impede the leadership’s ability to seal a treaty with Palestinians.

Livni, a former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians under the government led by Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, has publicly opposed the idea of a referendum. Livni now leads her own party, which is considered dovish on peace issues.

She told Israel’s Army Radio a few days ago, ‘‘At the moment, a referendum is a way to forestall decisions approved by the Parliament and the Cabinet.’’

Israeli supporters of a referendum, including many who oppose a large-scale Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, argue that a popular vote is an important means of establishing national consensus and legitimacy for what would inevitably be a hotly contested accord involving the removal of tens of thousands of Israeli settlers from their West Bank homes.

Israel Harel, a leading intellectual of the settlement movement, wrote of the settlers on Thursday in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, ‘‘On such a crucial matter of their very existence and of their Jewish and Zionist identity and faith they will not agree to their own removal unless they are convinced that it truly is the will of the nation.’’

The debate over the referendum was rekindled in Israel after reports that Naftali Bennett, a minister whose Jewish Home Party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, was soliciting the support of Yair Lapid, the finance minister and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, for new legislation.

Lapid, who says he supports a two-state solution but not concessions on Jerusalem, has not yet declared his party’s position on the referendum issue.

Bennett is seeking to broaden and more deeply anchor legislation approved in 2010 requiring any peace deal involving the ceding of territory annexed by Israel — namely East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — to be put to a national referendum unless it won the support of two-thirds of the members of Parliament.

Bennett would like to see such legislation extended to include the West Bank, where Israeli law does not apply. Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005 and destroyed all its settlements there without a referendum.

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