Palestine on the Brink 7.6.2006

Palestine on the Brink

Today, Singapore, 07/06/2006

Just before the ultimatum ran out on Monday this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas extended it realizing that there is too much to lose by going through with the snap referendum he wanted to call, without first having made every effort to compromise with Hamas over the draft document prepared by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The referendum would basically substitute for new Palestinian elections. If Abbas’ proposal to apply the draft document as a basis for Palestinian policy is accepted (likely but not certain) it could pull the rug out from under Hamas at this critical time just when PM Haniye is beginning to get some of the resources he needs to run his disabled government.

 Mahmoud Abbas, to much surprise, has turned from being a hesitant political operator propped up by Israel and the West into a leader who realized late enough that if he won’t play hardball now he might as well quit the game. He is acutely aware that Palestine with a Hamas government can only function if its policy guidelines are compatible with, or at least not in direct contravention of previous agreements signed between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. Accordingly, Abbas is making every effort to convince Hamas of the necessity to moderate along the rather vague lines of the prisoner’s document.

 Hamas  is seriously hampered by its own hardliners, in particular the organization’s leadership abroad under Haled Mashal. Hopelessly out of touch, they oppose the central theme of the draft document, the acceptance of the two state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders, and by inference if not by outright recognition, the existence of the State of Israel. Several prominent Hamas members in Palestine had already mentioned the need to recognize the two state solution even before the public presentation of the prisoner’s proposal. Nevertheless, Hamas would much prefer that such a formal and substantial change to its own policies would not appear to be the result of severe outside pressure but rather come about through a process of dialogue and internal discussions. Abbas’ ultimatum, necessary because only by forcing the issue in favor of moderation is there any hope in regaining donor support for the PA, seriously hampers Hamas’ internal deliberations.

 At this stage Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas are still playing tough, Abbas postponing the ultimatum but insisting that the prisoner’s document be accepted as is and Hamas threatening to boycott the snap referendum if changes would not be incorporated and an agreement reached. Both sides have a lot to lose if the referendum takes place. Abbas  will surely win if the referendum is boycotted by Hamas but will end up with a furious opposition reinforced in its hardline positions and wanting to reclaim the government by force. At the same time Hamas will instantly lose the basic legitimacy it has as an elected political movement, be forced to return to terrorist operations just recently abandoned and once again become a legitimate target for Israel.In any case, even if Abbas should call for the referendum, it won’t take place before another 40 days leaving plenty of time to negotiate.

 With so much at stake, chances are that both sides will find the magic formula permitting them both to claim victory. That however will only be possible if the agreed upon document is so constructively vague that Israel is unlikely to be able to accept it.

 If common sense prevails and the Palestinians reach a compromise, the PA will get a PLO/Hamas coalition endorsing a widely agreed upon policy based on the Palestinian’s lowest common denominator. While Israel may make every effort and then some to avoid dealing with a PA guided by such a policy, it will, in the end, not have much of a choice. The US will support Israel whatever it decides but any peace agreement will only be possible if Israel finally settles for its own lowest common denominator, the 1967 borders, a decision that cannot be imposed from the outside.

 As convenient as it appears that territorially the Israeli and Palestinian lowest common denominators are close to each other, let’s remember that Israel’s PM Olmert and his Kadima party are still deluding themselves that boycotting Hamas will work. They will need a lengthy period of adjustment before recognizing the inevitability of negotiating on the basis of the 1967 border also with a Hamas government in the PA, a necessity even the more moderate Labour coalition partner hasn’t seriously considered yet.

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