The Abbas challenge

May 28, 2006

Palestinians should have a say in their future homeland, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' surprise call last week for a national referendum on an independent state reaffirms that right. Mr. Abbas, the consummate negotiator, has been marginalized ever since the militant group Hamas won January's parliamentary elections. His challenge to the new Palestinian Authority to accept the outlines of a proposed state alongside Israel or face a referendum is a calculated attempt to reassert himself in a process that has been paralyzed by the Hamas-led government's refusal to accept Israel's right to exist and renounce violence, conditions that must be met before Israel will talk.

Without some movement on this front, Palestinians will be consigned to the land Israel gives them. That eventuality was made very clear last week during the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Washington, where he discussed plans for a unilateral withdrawal from West Bank lands Israel has occupied since 1967. President Bush complimented Mr. Olmert's plan, while lamely reiterating a need for a two-party solution.

Mr. Olmert's warm reception in Washington should spur moderates in the Palestinian Authority to action. The Hamas-dominated government's refusal to compromise has cost its people tens of millions of dollars in international aid. The situation is dire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: Palestinian workers are going unpaid, families are struggling to meet basic needs, and factional militias are shooting each other. The ideology of Hamas officials suits a terrorist organization but not an elected government whose primary focus should be improving the lives of Palestinians and resolving their decades-old claim. Palestinians deserve a viable state, not a bunch of disconnected islands, which is what they will get if Israel withdraws unilaterally with Washington's full backing.

A national referendum could offer Hamas leaders a way out of their dilemma. It would seek approval of a plan drafted by Palestinian prisoners of both factions who are jailed in Israel. The plan identifies a Palestinian state that follows the contour of land seized by Israel during the 1967 war. Israel would not accept such borders, which would mean dividing Jerusalem, but it could be a starting point for discussion and an incentive for the Bush administration to get the parties talking.

Without strong input from Washington, Mr. Abbas won't be able to deliver a state acceptable to Palestinians. And the Bush administration rightly won't deal with a government that calls for Israel's destruction. The Hamas-led government should let the referendum go forward for the sake of all Palestinians.

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