Last Chance to End the Conflict
Ha’aretz, Febuary 7, 2006
The Hamas electoral victory did not effect a decisive shift of power or legitimacy from the PLO to Hamas. But it is clearly a major step in that direction. To the surprise of many observers, Mahmoud Abbas, who remains both the president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman ofthe PLO, is showing a resolve not previously seen. He is laying down stiff conditions for the appointment of a Hamas-oriented prime minister; he has told the heads of the various security services that they must report directly to him as commander in chief; and he has asserted that the PLO, not Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, will remain as Israel’s counter-part in any peace negotiations.
Abbas’ objective has been unchanged: to achieve a comprehensive end-of-conflict peace agreement with Israel. Since Arafat’s death over a year ago, he has made little headway in interesting either the Israeli government or the U.S. government in quickly moving to resume the negotiations that broke off when Ariel Sharon defeated Ehud Barak five years ago yesterday. Now, with Sharon permanently incapacitated; with the Likud Party eclipsed by the new centrist Kadima party; and with the emergence of Hamas as a central player in Palestinian governance, perhaps he will find a partner. If he does, there is a good chance that an end-of-conflict agreement can be reached quickly. But this is the last chance. It must be seized now.
The idea, at the moment of Hamas’ ascendancy, of quickly reaching the elusive final peace agreement may seem totally fanciful. To see why this remains possible, it is necessary to better understand what the recent Palestinian election demonstrated and accomplished.
First, it should be realized that the Palestinian people did not give Hamas their overwhelming support. Indeed, Hamas did not even win a majority of the popular vote. Despite the strong component protesting corruption and lawlessness in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas received 44.4 percent of the popular vote, only slightly more than the 41.4 percent that went to Abbas’ party, Fatah. Importantly, the remaining 14 percent went to parties that are both secular in nature and support the two state solution to the conflict.
Secondly, it should be remembered that Abbas himself was elected to the Palestinian presidency only a year ago, with some 62 percent of the popular vote. In that election, Hamas did not participate and turnout was lower; yet in absolute terms, Abbas received more votes than did Hamas in the recent election.
Third, it is something of a misunderstanding to say that Hamas won the right to govern the Palestinian Authority. Hamas won 74 out of 132 seats in the Palestinian Parliament; to this they have a right. However, Palestinian governance is split between the president, the prime minister and cabinet, and the parliament. As president, Abbas retains significant governing
powers, including: the right to propose legislation; the right to veto legislation (a two-thirds vote of 88 members is required to override a veto); the right to select and remove the prime minister; ultimate authority over the security services; the ability to issue Presidential decrees with the force of law when parliament is not in session; and the ability to declare a state of emergency in which he has yet additional powers.
And finally, with respect to the all-important issue of peace negotiations, it is the PLO not the Palestinian Authority that does the negotiating. When Fatah dominated the P A, this distinction became somewhat obfuscated. But the PA was created as a temporary authority as a result of Israeli-PLO negotiations. It was the PLO that signed the Oslo Accords, the PLO that exchanged letters of recognition with the government of Israel, the PLO that Rabin designated “the representative of the Palestinian people,” and the PLO that came to Camp David.
Though Abbas retains the will, the authority and the legitimacy to enter into final status negotiations with Israel, what likelihood is there that such negotiations could actually, and quickly, result in a comprehensive end-of-conflict agreement? Virtually no chance, unless a totally new process is adopted, a Referendum Based Peace Process (RBPP). Here is how it could work:
- The United States (or the Quartet) would put on the table a fully detailed draft peace agreement at the very outset.
- Israel and the PLO would then negotiate for three months to see if they can find any mutually agreeable improvements to the American draft.
- After three months, the peace treaty, either in its original or its modified form, will be put to a referendum in both societies. Neither the PLO nor the Government of Israel would be committed in advance to supporting passage.
- If the referenda pass in both societies, then Israel and the PLO would sign the treaty.
- As a result of the treaty, the State of Palestine would come into existence, with the Government of Palestine replacing the Palestinian Authority.
There is a good deal of polling evidence that shows that a strong majority of both the Israeli and Palestinian public want a return to final-status negotiations. Moreover, there is strong evidence that a comprehensive treaty, roughly along the lines proposed by President Clinton at the end of
his term, could win the approval of both peoples.
Finally, it should not be thought that Hamas would necessarily oppose such a process. At present Hamas faces dilemmas and responsibilities it did not anticipate. It faces problems it cannot solve. Hamas wants to see a complete end to the occupation, and it wants to see a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital. However, given its refusal to compromise its ideological premises, it has no viable strategy to bring this about. And because it cannot do so itself, it is likely to step back and let Abbas and the Palestinian people make this last try.