A Middle East Breakthrough


Ha’aretz, October 11, 2006


On September 24, The Washington Post published an interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It deserves considerably more attention than it received. In it, Ahmadinejad made this remarkable comment about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “Let the Palestinian people decide their fate in a free and fair referendum, and the result, whatever it is, should be accepted.”

            This Iranian suggestion of a Palestinian referendum dovetails with the position of Hamas: that the PLO, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, should negotiate with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people, but that any negotiated treaty must be subject to ratification by a referendum of all Palestinians, including those in the Diaspora.

            This emphasis on the use of a Palestinian referendum as the key to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be dismissed as some public relations ploy. It speaks to several important Palestinian realities. One is that the PLO, to which Hamas does not belong, is not fully representative of the Palestinian people. A second is the belief that fundamental compromises on the Palestinian “right of return” will require direct expression by the people themselves.

            There is also a political reality. Whatever his internal machinations, Ahmadinejad knows that his ability to use the Palestinian cause for his own ends would run out of steam were the Palestinian people to endorse a peace agreement. Similarly, the Hamas leadership knows that its own political legitimacy would require it to accept any peace treaty ratified by a referendum.

            In both cases, this political reality has been turned to advantage. Without making any compromises in advance on issues of substance, Iran and Hamas have been able to point toward a process that opens the door to negotiations and could lead to resolving the conflict. Thus, both Ahmadinejad and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh have been able to adopt stances of moderation without appearing to shift on issues of principle. The challenge for the rest of us is to find a way to use this opportunity in the cause of genuine peace.

            The most straightforward approach is to give Abbas what he has been asking for: a renewal of the Israeli-PLO final-status talks that were last held in January of 2001, but were broken off when Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister. This does not require a Palestinian unity government. Rather, what is needed is to sharply segregate peace negotiations from the issue of aid to the Palestinian Authority’s Hamas-led government. The aid issue would remain unchanged, and dependent on whether the PA government accepts the principles of nonviolence, acceptance of previous agreements and recognition of Israel’s right to exist, as laid down by the Quartet. Israel would not be negotiating with the PA government, but with the PLO, as did Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, when Yasser Arafat was head of the PLO.

            It is not likely that the Bush Administration will support the resumption of final-status talks of the sort held under President Bill Clinton. While polls of both Israelis and Palestinians suggest that an agreement acceptable to both peoples can be found, were final-status talks to resume, it is doubtful that either leadership would make the hard compromises needed to reach an agreement. Knowing this, the Bush Administration has, understandably, been reluctant to repeat President Clinton’s experience at Camp David in the summer of 2000. President Bush has no desire to see his second term end with a major negotiations failure.

            An alternative approach, one that utilizes the referendum idea, offers a way forward. Rather than traditional bilateral negotiations, the process would open with the Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia) putting a fully drafted end-of-conflict peace treaty, based on the Clinton parameters, on the table. These parameters were accepted by Israel at the time, and are now also accepted by the PLO. Starting with the draft peace agreement, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would be given six months to negotiate any improvements. Then, either in its original or improved form, Israel and the PLO would have to approve or reject the agreement.

            Each party would utilize its own procedures. On the Israeli side, this would mean a cabinet decision on whether to bring the treaty to a vote in the Knesset. On the Palestinian side, if the PLO accepts the treaty document, it would be submitted for ratification by a referendum of the Palestinian people. This approach would provide the Palestinian people with a moment of truth, an opportunity, in Ahmadinejad’s words, “to decide their fate.”

            Prior to negotiations, the Palestinians would need to enact specific procedures for calling and conducting a referendum. In addition, there would have to be clarity that a treaty approved in a referendum would become the law of the land, binding on all successor governments. Such steps are quite doable and would not take long to enact.

            The key is to focus on bringing a balanced end-of-conflict agreement to a decisive vote of the Palestinian people. Success here would open the door for full normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, and possibly Iran. It is simply too important to not be tested.