Abbas' Referendum Gamble Risks a Palestinian Backlash

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has issued an ultimatum to the elected Hamas government: Accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on Israel returning to its 1967 borders, or face a referendum on the issue. But the fact that Abbas on Tuesday extended the deadline for compliance by another three days suggests that he may be starting to realize what other observers already know — that if Hamas calls his bluff, Abbas could suffer yet another repudiation by Palestinian voters.

It's not that Hamas necessarily rejects the proposal, which is contained in a a document drawn up by prisoners from its own faction as well as Abbas's Fatah movement currently doing time in Israeli jails. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has already offered Israel peace in the form of a "long-term truce" if it withdraws to its 1967 borders, and Hamas is in fact in discussions with Fatah over that very issue. But Hamas, not surprisingly, is unwilling to accept Abbas's ultimatum. "I am not prepared to act with a gun to my head," Haniyeh said Monday.

Among ordinary Palestinians, the dispute between Abbas and Hamas is viewed as a power play, in which the already dangerous divisions between Fatah and Hamas — which find increasingly violent expression on a daily basis in Gaza — stand to be exacerbated over an entirely hypothetical issue. Referendums on political agreements, after all, are usually conducted once such agreements have been reached, not before any negotiations have been held. And while a majority of Palestinians continue to favor a two-state solution, they are under no illusion that Israel is ready to accept returning to its 1967 borders, never mind accept the principle of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, which is also reportedly proclaimed in the document.

For many Palestinians watching a fratricidal war escalate between gunmen of Fatah and Hamas in Gaza, the question seems almost absurd: why should the Palestinians inflame tensions among themselves over whether to accept a position rejected by the government of Israel?

One answer, perhaps, is that Abbas believes that adopting the prisoners' plan will negate Israel's claim that it has no Palestinian negotiating partner, making it more difficult for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to move ahead with plans to unilaterally redraw Israel's borders. But there's clearly a domestic political agenda, too: The grassroots-level Fatah warlords on whose support Abbas is increasingly dependent have, ever since they lost the January election to Hamas, agitated for an aggressive strategy to topple the new government.

The motivations of these Fatah leaders, many of whom surround Abbas, are less political and ideological than they are about restoring lost power and its ensuing privileges. Indeed, Fatah has shown little inclination to digest the real reasons for its electoral defeat — the fact that ordinary Palestinians see many of its leaders as incorrigibly corrupt and self-serving and view the movement as having no political vision for achieving Palestinian national goals. This view of Fatah is what prompted an electorate committed to a two-state solution to nonetheless vote Hamas into power, as a clean and more responsive alternative. Even though his office was not up for reelection, the January legislative election was essentially a vote of no confidence in President Abbas.

The leadership of Hamas has long demonstrated a keen ability to stay onside with Palestinian public opinion. That may help explain why the movement — under pressure from Arab governments to make it easier to stand up to U.S. pressure to cut all financial aid — has been debating a move toward a de facto two-state solution. But if the anger generated on the streets by Abbas's referendum ultimatum is sufficiently widespread, Hamas may decide to call his bluff — because they believe they can win the issue where it counts, in the streets.

—With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem