Voting for nothing
The Palestinian president's referendum call is one more distraction from the real struggle, reports Khaled Amayreh from Ramallah
When Palestinian political and civic leaders met in Ramallah and Gaza for the long-awaited national dialogue earlier this week, everyone hoped Hamas and Fatah might overcome their differences and bring an end to the political and financial crises that have haunted the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its Hamas-led government.
Yet as speaker after speaker appealed for national unity, reminding Palestinians that the real conflict was with Israel and not among themselves, the atmosphere abruptly morphed into one of apprehension.
The bombshell came from PA President Mahmoud Abbas who, towards the end of his speech, warned that he would call a public referendum in 10 days if Palestinian factions failed to adopt the consensus programme contained in a document drafted by the leaders of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
The document demands the creation of a viable Palestinian state within the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and for the plight of refugees to be settled in accordance with UN Resolution 194, which calls for their repatriation or indemnification. This is in return for a tacit recognition of Israel.
Some Western news agencies hastened to interpret the move as an ultimatum to Hamas, despite the fact that Hamas had not rejected the prisoners' document but was instead arguing that the national dialogue must be given sufficient time if it was going to succeed.
Hamas leaders also questioned the legality of holding a referendum only four months after national elections, suggesting that such a move would inevitably lead to the suspicion that the real aim was to undermine the results of the election. Indeed, it is far from clear if, under the Palestinian Basic Law, the president can by-pass parliament and unilaterally call a public referendum without coordination, or at least consultation, with the legislative council.
And excluding from the vote more than five million Palestinians living in the Diaspora would present real problems for the PLO, which continues to claim it represents all Palestinians.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniya was cautious about the referendum call, stressing the importance of giving the national dialogue time to succeed. The referendum, he said, "could be resorted to if everything else failed".
"We were surprised by the gambit. The president didn't consult with us beforehand. It seems hasty. You can't say either you accept my view or I will hold a referendum. This is not how consensus politics works."
Other Hamas leaders were more blunt. Khalid Mashaal interpreted the referendum call as a ploy aimed at "corroding the people's will".
Speaking after two Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders were killed by a car- bomb in southern Lebanon this week, Mashaal accused the PA leadership of "failing to come to terms with the results of the elections".
"Whoever wants to know the popular will should look at the outcome of the elections that took place only four months ago. We are not going to give up our principles under pressure."
Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar labeled the proposed referendum a "waste of time".
"This process needs money, and we have no money," Zahar was quoted as saying.
Hamas's reluctance to accept the referendum stems from its fear that its outcome would deepen and complicate the internal Palestinian crisis, especially between Fatah and Hamas.
Hamas argues that the real problem is Israel's refusal to give up the spoils of the 1967 War, not its non-recognition of Israel, and that no matter how many times Palestinians recognise Israel, Israel will never voluntarily agree to withdraw from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, now crowded with Jewish- only settlements and augmented by a gigantic concrete Separation Wall reducing most Palestinian population centres to open air prisons and detention camps.
Indeed, Israel has already dismissed the Prisoners' Document as "an internal Palestinian affair", and even such erstwhile moderates as Justice Minister Haim Ramon reject any suggestion that Israel will return to its 1967 borders, let alone allow the repatriation of refugees. All of which reduces the relevance and significance of the proposed referendum to the sphere of public relations.
"What did recognition bring us," asked Gazan farmer Said Abu Salah, 40. "We've been through 10 years of negotiations and yeses for nothing. All American initiatives have failed. Oslo was merely institutionalised occupation. So now we give them one more 'yes' for what? To continue their annexation plan in the West Bank, to continue to strangle us here in Gaza?"
Which is not to say that Palestinians like Abu Salah do not want to see a viable Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel; they do, it is just that most of them learned a lesson from the failed Oslo experiment, and that is that there can be no more free recognition of Israel.
"I would say 'yes' to recognition of Israel in a referendum, but only after Israel recognised a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," stressed Abu Salah in an interview with aljazeera.net English service.
And that, of course, will never happen, underlining the irrelevance of the Prisoners Document, even if 100 per cent of the Palestinian electorate voted for it in a referendum. (see p.6)