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May 26, 2006
Abbas: Let's Vote On Peace

Mahmoud Abbas gambled what remains of his power and influence yesterday on the Palestinian desire for peaceful coexistence with Israel, demanding that Hamas either recognize Israel or put the matter to a plebescite:

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said Thursday that he would call a referendum on a proposal for a Palestinian state that would recognize Israel, if the governing Hamas party failed to accept the plan within 10 days.

In laying down his challenge, Mr. Abbas seems to be gambling that he can force his Fatah party, Hamas and some smaller factions to agree on a broad framework for dealing with Israel, which Hamas now refuses to recognize. But he runs the risk of provoking a political showdown at a moment when the Palestinians are already plagued by infighting and a worsening financial crisis. ...

"We are not afraid of a referendum," said a Hamas legislator, Salah Bardawil. "The election was a referendum, and the majority of the people chose us." He was referring to the vote in January in which Fatah, which previously dominated Palestinian politics, lost its parliamentary majority and Hamas, a radical Islamic group, came to power.

Indeed. Most Westerners discount this, preferring to believe that the benighted Palestinians voted for Hamas because of Fatah's corruption and incompetence. However, polls showed that Palestinians overwhelmingly approved of terrorism even before electing Abbas as president. The terrorists understand their constituency better than Abbas, which is not coincidentally the reason why they hold the majority in the Palestinian legislature.

The referendum will hold little real value in any event. The proposal that Abbas wants to present contains a poison pill for Israel: the right of return. It essentially renders the border meaningless, regardless if drawn at pre-1967 lines or along the path of the wall today. The influx of Palestinians would destabilize Israel and create a fatal security meltdown similar in concept to that of the rump of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Israel cannot agree to this and survive as a nation; it would function as the one-state solution that Arafat threatened in his last months, which would have required Israel to give the vote to Palestinians in one contiguous state.

Abbas needs a dramatic change of momentum, however, and demanding a policy change as part of a political ultimatum allows him to achieve two key goals. First, a referendum burnishes his credentials with the West and Israel as a moderate and a potential partner for peace. Second, it gives Abbas one last try to connect to the Palestinian electorate that soundly rejected him and his party in the last elections. As am incentive, he will offer them an illusory choice of a proposal that has no chance of winning agreement.

The Palestinians might respond to Abbas under those circumstances; they have ever been a people prone to illusions. What happens when they do, and Israel rejects the right of return? Abbas will then either have to join the war effort that Hamas has already set its mind to pursuing, or he and Fatah will get crushed in the civil war that such a rejection will produce.

This referendum is only a cynical play for a little extra time and one last means to pressure Israel into suicide. The real risk is that the West will take this peace plan seriously and attempt to force in on Israel. Olmert should resist; this would be nothing more or less than another Munich, with Olmert cast in the role of Masaryk and people falling all over themselves to play Neville Chamberlain.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 26, 2006 5:16 AM

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