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June 5, 2006
The Palestinian Showdown

The New York Times reports in tomorrow's edition that talks between Hamas and Fatah have ended without agreement, and Mahmoud Abbas will proceed with his plans for a plebescite on adopting the two-state solution as the official policy of the Palestinian Authority. This promises to escalate into a serious showdown between the two armed factions vying for power in the territories, and the chances of holding the referendum without an outbreak of civil war appears slim:

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, intends to call a referendum on a proposal developed by prisoners for a unified Palestinian political program that the governing Hamas faction opposes.

Talks on the proposal ended without agreement late Monday night, and early Tuesday morning Mr. Abbas's office said in a statement that he intended to live up to his ultimatum to Hamas, the militant Islamic faction that heads the government, and announce a referendum later on Tuesday after meeting with the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"In light of recent contacts, President Abbas will decide the date of the referendum after a meeting of the P.L.O. executive committee," the statement said.

The referendum is expected to be called for July and will be seen as a vote of confidence in Hamas, which won legislative elections in late January but has been isolated internationally and financially because of its refusal to recognize the right of Israel to exist, to forswear violence and to accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The vote, if it takes place, will be a kind of showdown between Hamas and Mr. Abbas, who has insisted from the beginning of Hamas's rule that it accept the idea of a negotiated two-state solution, with an independent Palestine living in peace alongside Israel.

This will bring much-needed clarity to the debate on peace in the PA. Hamas has never agreed to peaceful coexistence with Israel, and has always insisted that the Zionists must either leave or be driven out of Muslim lands. Abbas has publicly supported the notion of the two-state solution, even if he had little real power to deliver it. A plebescite gives the Palestinians an opportunity to vote explicitly on the question of peace or war, eliminating any ambiguity remaining after their surprise election of Hamas to govern the territories.

Abbas has some heavy backing in his corner. The document he wants to offer unaltered to the Palestinians comes from Marwan Barghuoti, a national hero to the Palestinians currently serving a life sentence for terrorism. Hamas leaders in prison also helped create the proposal, giving it no small amount of prestige and political weight. On the other hand, Fatah has largely been discredited through their widespread corruption and incompetence, while Hamas' purity of purpose garners support from those not completely jaded by the decades of disappointment as well as the radical Islamists who dream of a Jew-free ummah.

The Israelis can only stand back and watch. This proposal presents the classic mixed bag for Tel Aviv. On one hand, the Israelis would like to reach some sort of true negotiated conclusion to this long and treacherous chapter, if for no other reason than to leave the Palestinians to themselves and allow them their civil war. It would also repudiate Hamas and cripple their international prestige, dealing a setback to international terrorism. However, a strong Palestinian acceptance of the document would put tremendous international pressure on them to bargain on the basis of it, and it contains at least one show-stopper: the right of return that would render Israel defunct. Nor would Israel prefer a return to the pre-1967 border that allowed the Arab nations to almost bisect the country on their two invasions of Israel. An Israeli rejection of the proposal after the effort Abbas must make to stage the referendum would have serious diplomatic blowback in Europe.

It likely will never get to that stage, however. Hamas cannot afford to lose that kind of election, and they will accelerate their efforts to seize control of the West Bank and Gaza to stop Abbas from holding the election. Fatah will fight Hamas in the streets to protect Abbas' executive privileges, whether they truly exist or not, and civil war will break out instead of elections. Leaders of both parties will become targets for assassins, and when the smoke clears both parties will have lost ground with the people. It might take that to get the Palestinians to find serious leadership.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 5, 2006 8:58 PM

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