With a month to go before the date set by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for a national referendum vote on accepting or rejecting the “Prisoner’s Document,” it is still not clear if the vote will take place. Hamas is raising all kinds of arguments against it, with its representatives in the Palestinian Legislative Council claiming it is against the law to hold a referendum. Ministers in the PA government are saying that a referendum amounts to a delegitimation of the results of the January elections that brought them to power. Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister, says there is no need for a vote, because Hamas is still negotiating with Fatah over the document and, in any case, the Palestinians need to remain united and work to create a “National Unity Coalition.”
The PA is undoubtedly in a crisis. The economic sanctions imposed by Israel, the US and the European Union after the creation of the Hamas government are having a serious effect on Palestinians’ quality of life. While they are not starving, they are certainly suffering. Hospitals lack essential supplies and equipment. Women are pawning their jewelry to pay for food. And Hamas remains unbending in their opposition to recognizing Israel and ending terrorism.
I’m not going to argue about the “Prisoner’s Document” itself. I agree with others who have written about it in this blog, that it is a flawed document at best, and that its contents are a step backwards in terms of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. It only implicitly accepts the existence of the State of Israel (within pre-1967 borders) by calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in all the Occupied Territories. The Oslo Accords, which Abu Mazen signed on behalf of the Palestinians, are much clearer about the right of Israel to exist.
But holding a referendum on a document that implicitly recognizes Israel is tremendously significant. Hamas is trying to prevent the referendum, whether by reaching a compromise with Fatah, or possibly even resigning from the PA government en-masse (so that a technocratic government may be formed). If they fail to prevent the referendum, they may well try to get the voters to boycott it. But if the referendum vote actually takes place, it will be the first time that the Palestinians will be directly making their voice heard about their willingness to support a two-state solution to the conflict. Support of the document would represent a rejection to the policies of Hamas.
Most analysts agree that it wasn’t Hamas that won the Palestinian elections, but it was Fatah that lost. Hamas had better campaign tacticts, and a reputation for altruism that served it well with a population tired of corruption and favoritism. But this referendum isn’t about who can provide basic services without taking bribes, or who can make sure that law enforcement is impartial. It is about returning to the negotiating table with a clear understanding that the outcome will be a Palestinian state next to Israel. It is about recognizing that a solution to the conflict exists and that it is based on compromise.