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Israeli bill would make territorial withdrawals harder

JERUSALEM - Israel's parliament passed a bill yesterday that could complicate peace efforts with the Palestinians and Syria by making it very difficult for any government to make territorial withdrawals.

The bill requires a two-thirds Knesset majority to cede land in east Jerusalem to the Palestinians or in the Golan Heights to Syria. Failing that, either withdrawal would become subject to a referendum, and polls show winning public approval would be an uphill battle.

The bill - which passed by a 65-33 majority - will have little impact in the short term, since neither deal seems imminent. But it reflects growing jitters by hard-liners in parliament - especially over U.S. efforts to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's own position seems influenced by his need to appease his voter base while preventing the collapse of the peace process - which would anger the Israeli center, alienate America and risk new violence. He voted along with the hard-liners.

"Any peace agreement requires national agreement and the bill promises that," he said in a statement.

The Palestinian government in the West Bank, which refuses to negotiate without a freeze on new Jewish construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, condemned the bill.

"With the passage of this bill, the Israeli leadership, yet again, is making a mockery of international law," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. There was no comment from Syria, which lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 war and wants it all back as the price for peace.

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