Abbas or Hamas? Choose and lose

AARON DAVID MILLER, a former senior State Department Middle East negotiator, is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

IF YOU HAD A HEADACHE, even a migraine, would you shoot yourself in the head to get rid of it?

As ridiculous as it sounds, that’s precisely what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is doing in his current gambit to corner Hamas by forcing a referendum on the future of the two-state solution. If he succeeds, it will not help his cause, but it will undermine his credibility and set the Palestinian national movement back 20 years.

It’s understandable, of course, that Abbas feels frustrated by his position and is searching for a way out. Elected in fair and free elections in January 2005 to succeed Yasser Arafat, he finds himself only a year and a half later undercut by a frustrated and angry Palestinian public that has installed a Hamas government over his head. With a Hamas prime minister and a Hamas legislature in office, he and his Fatah colleagues have been substantially weakened. In recent days, tensions between the two competing factions have grown worse, deteriorating into a series of shootouts and raising the unpleasant specter of civil war.


But in his effort to regain the initiative and public support, Abbas has made a terrible mistake. He has latched on to an approach crafted by Palestinian prisoners led by Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, perhaps the most popular Palestinian on the political scene today. The “prisoner’s document,” as it is known, calls for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. It implicitly recognizes Israel as a fact, though not its right to exist. Banking on the reality that Palestinian prisoners are viewed as second only to God in Palestinian society, Abbas intends to call a referendum on the document, using it to force Hamas to choose a two-state solution, and if it doesn’t, to undermine its capacity to govern.

The problem, however, is that the prisoners’ document that Abbas sees as the vehicle of his deliverance will only muddy the clarity of his own stand against terrorism and for negotiations -- the very positions that make him credible with Israel and the U.S. The prisoners’ document endorses armed resistance in the West Bank and Gaza, urges Palestinians to free prisoners by any means and gives preeminence to the Palestinian right of return.

Far from an instrument of political rejuvenation, Abbas’ embrace of the prisoners’ approach is counterproductive. The fact that it may represent an advance over Hamas’ maximalist goals cannot hide the fact that it is a serious retreat from Fatah’s more moderate objectives. Indeed, it reopens vital questions about Israel’s right to exist and about Palestinian endorsement of terrorism and violence that should have been laid to rest by now. Abbas risks locking himself into positions that raise serious doubts about his own moderate intentions and could formally link him to prospective partners and committees (the document calls for the creation of a committee to direct resistance in the occupied territories) that will undermine his own approach toward negotiations.

Particularly worrisome is the endorsement of resistance in the occupied territories, a fantasy that has visited only ruin on the Palestinian public and its image -- and which Abbas until now has been careful not to endorse.

Abbas’ approach may play well in the Palestinian Peoria, but it will do little to advance his case in Washington and Jerusalem. And though politics is always local (he might find himself to be the darling of the Palestinian public if a referendum succeeds), in the end, his success or failure will be determined by his capacity to create a process that replaces the occupation with statehood -- something that can only be achieved with Israeli and American support.

The current plight of Abbas, a good man with moderate views and aspirations, reflects the fundamental problem confronting Palestinians today. Half a century on, the Palestinian movement lacks a coherent strategy to achieve its national aspirations. Neither Hamas nor Abbas has a plan to either negotiate for a Palestinian state or to take it by force. The fact that there are at least four power centers operating in the West Bank (the government of Israel, the president of the Palestinian Authority, a Hamas government and various militias, gangs and security organizations) dramatically reduces the odds that such coherence will emerge anytime soon.

We can wring our hands over the plight of the Palestinians, bemoan the absence of a state for a people who clearly deserve one and blame Americans and Israelis for many missed opportunities. But until Palestinians make clear precisely what they want and how they plan to achieve it, not much is going to change. And no referendum that leaves open as many questions as it answers is likely to alter that fact.