Abbas takes a shot at stealing Hamas' spotlight

James Klurfeld
May 26, 2006

It almost seems that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was reading my mind. Or, more likely, of course, he is looking at the strategic realities of the Israel-Palestinian dispute.

As I was preparing to write this column earlier this week, I kept saying to myself that it no longer made any sense to be championing the peace process. In fact, my disillusionment with the peace process would be the theme of this week's column.

But then I heard the news yesterday that Abbas is contemplating an unexpected and major move: He will call for a referendum of the Palestinian people on whether they want to live in a two-state arrangement with Israel. Abbas, of course, recognizes Israel and desires a negotiated agreement. Israeli leaders say they believe him to be sincere in this, but unable to follow through. That has become even more true since the rejectionist Hamas won parliamentary elections earlier this year.

In a way, the Hamas victory could be taken as a referendum on the peace process. Hamas does not accept Israel, does not accept a two-state solution and hence its election victory means the Palestinian people support that position.

Obviously, Abbas, whose forces have had armed clashes with Hamas and other militants recently, feels otherwise. A lot of people felt that Hamas won the elections because the Palestinian people were fed up with the inept, corrupt Palestinian Authority. Hamas promised a cleaner government and better delivery of social services.

But, still, its election was a blow to the most basic assumption underlying American policy in the Middle East for the past 40 years: that given the right set of negotiating principles, the Israelis and the Palestinians both were willing to accept a two-state solution. After the outright rejection of Israel's Camp David proposals and the turn to violence, including suicide bombing, it was hard to accept that premise. I found it near impossible after the Hamas election. That's why the plan for a separation fence and unilateral Israeli drawing of boundaries seemed to make sense. It was the best option available. President George W. Bush is only paying lip service to the need for a negotiated solution. He knows, and the Israelis know, it will not happen given current circumstances.

What about the assumption that a majority of the populations on both sides really wanted a two-state solution? Most of the polls I've read over the years indicated that was the case. And my own reporting in the West Bank indicated a similar sentiment. Palestinians didn't like it, but many had come to understand that Israel wasn't going away in their lifetime and, as with most human beings, they just wanted the violence, the occupation and the terror of living under occupation to end. But, over a 40-year period, if the leaders don't reflect the followers, what to do? And what do the followers really want? It's been all too easy for a small group of radicals to dictate the agenda.

Yasser Arafat always played the end against the middle, always played to the lowest common denominator. That's how he survived. But when confronted with a real peace offer and statehood, he refused even to make a counteroffer. Abbas says the right things, but doesn't have the power.

Or, at least, he hasn't had the power. Maybe the referendum is his attempt to take the spotlight away from Hamas and rally those who repeatedly say they don't want the violence to continue. The referendum is an idea worth pursuing.

Maybe it means that the Palestinians, at least some of them, are finally ready to refute the oft-repeated line by Israeli's former Foreign Minister Abba Eban: "The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

I'll hold off that column on giving up all hope for a peace process - for now.

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