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Cook: Abbas’ Call for Referendum on Two-State Solution Puts Pressure on Hamas and Israel

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 26, 2006

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Steven A. Cook, the CFR Douglas Dillon Fellow and an expert on the Middle East, says the surprise call by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a two-state negotiated solution creating a Palestinian state next to Israel was "a shrewd move." Not only has it put the Hamas-led government on the spot, it has also put constraints on Israel.

Abbas placed the onus on Hamas to cooperate with his own Fatah party toward a two-state policy within ten days or face the prospect of the question being submitted to Palestinian voters in a referendum. "Abbas is placing a bet that the opinion polls that have consistently come out in the last few years are accurate, and that 70 percent to 72 percent of the Palestinian people do want a two-state solution," says Cook.

Regarding Israel, Cook says recent Israeli claims of being willing to negotiate with the Palestinians were likely based on an assumption no such talks would ever take place. "Now, if Abbas goes to a referendum and once again 70 percent to 72 percent of the people vote for a two-state solution, all of a sudden there is a negotiating partner, and the Israelis will be forced to engage in serious negotiations with Abbas," says Cook.

Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement on Thursday saying Fatah and Hamas, which are now in negotiations to calm things down in the Palestinian territories, should work out a plan that would recognize a two-state solution with Israel. If they cannot do that in ten days, then he said a referendum should be held in July for the Palestinians to decide whether there should be two states, a state of Israel and a Palestinian state. What is the significance of this?

It's a shrewd move on the part of Mahmoud Abbas. He has taken up a plan put together by leaders of Palestinian factions in Israeli jails. These include members of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Outside of jail, of course, Islamic Jihad leaders have rejected this two-state plan, and Hamas leaders [have been] very cool to it from the outset. But now Abbas has taken it up, and in some ways has thrown down the gauntlet to Hamas and said "Either we come to some sort of agreement about a two-state solution in ten days or we're going to go to a referendum on this to the Palestinian people."

Now Abbas is placing a bet that the opinion polls that have consistently come out in the last few years are accurate and that 70 percent to 72 percent of the Palestinian people do want a two-state solution. And of course, this vision is quite different from the Israeli vision of a two-state solution. This plan calls for the withdrawal of Israel from all occupied territory from the 1967 War, including East Jerusalem, and of course, Palestinian refugees dating back to the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, would be permitted to return.

Be that as it may, this is an extraordinary challenge to Hamas. Hamas has said it is for democracy, that they are with the people and that the people support them. Yet, Hamas hasn't changed its position. Its charter still calls for the destruction of Israel, it does not recognize the two-state solution, but now, if it does go to a referendum and large numbers of Palestinian people vote for the two-state plan, [the charter] would seemingly force Hamas to have to change its position.

Would Hamas allow a referendum?

It's unclear just yet. This only came out a day ago. The Hamas speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council [the Parliament] has said Hamas does not fear referendums because they know the people are with them. Now, that sounds like a lot of bluster before considering what that might mean.

But Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said that he was not keen on having a referendum.

For precisely the reasons I pointed out. They know what the opinion polls show as well. There are clearly splits within Hamas. Whereas the speaker of the parliament obviously has indicated in a chest-beating way, "Yes, we'll go to a referendum," when cool heads think about what this might mean, they back away from it. The other shrewd thing about this is that it constrains the Israelis to some extent.

After all, the new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was just in Washington. At his press conference with President Bush, he stated that the Israeli government would exhaust all possibilities for negotiation. This is a slight change in Israel's posture, and is clearly something the Bush administration wanted Olmert to say. It was easy for Olmert to do so because the Israelis did not believe that Abbas would be able to deliver anything. They [the Israelis] thought they would negotiate and after a period of time, they would say they had no partner for peace, and continue with their unilateral withdrawals and their "convergence plan" as it is called in Israel. Now, if Abbas goes to a referendum and once again 70 to 72 percent of the people vote for a two-state solution, all of a sudden there is a negotiating partner, and the Israelis will be forced to engage in serious negotiations with Abbas.

This is a very strange situation in a way. The document put out by the political prisoners is essentially what the Arab League put out in 2002, and that document was based on U.N. Security Council resolution 242 of 1967, calling on Israel to pull back from territories occupied in the 1967 War in return for peace. There is a little wiggle room in that document, since it does not call on Israel to pull back from "all" occupied land or even "the" occupied lands. But the thrust of all the Arab demands has been for Israel to give up a lot more than Israel has been willing to surrender. Plus, there is a call for the return of refugees which is a non-starter as far as Israel is concerned, right? So are we not ahead of ourselves if we are talking about future negotiations?

To some extent, we are. But I think what Abbas is doing is trying to apply pressure on Israelis and Hamas at the same time. I think this 18-point document is an opening for a negotiation. I think it is something that will be subject to negotiation if this referendum goes through. Clearly, the return of refugees is a non-starter. Clearly, there is going to have to be some border adjustments, something that Bush and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had agreed to. But this is a way for Abbas to get out of the difficult situation he is in and bring some stability to the Palestinian political situation, and put the Israelis in a difficult situation where they do have to negotiate rather than engage in unilateral withdrawals, which would leave the Palestinians with less than they would presumably achieve through negotiations.

Who do you think put this idea in Abbas' head?

It is a good question because he has not demonstrated this kind of deft political maneuvering since his election, but you do have to give Abbas a certain amount of credit. He was Yasir Arafat's number two for quite a long period of time. We all may have been underestimating him.

Talk briefly about the chief organizer of the document, Marwan Barghouti.

He is the leader of the next generation of Fatah leaders. He is serving five consecutive life terms in Israeli prison for being involved in the murder of Israelis during the second Intifada. He has significant amounts of prestige, and he is, in essence, the Palestinian leader in waiting. He commands legitimacy amongst the Palestinians in a way that Abbas never has. He is tough on the Israeli occupation, but willing to accept a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, and he wants to stop attacks on Israelis within Israel so that satisfies Israelis to some extent. Not to be too flip about it, but the Israelis should find some way to let him out of prison.

What about the U.S. position? The United States obviously has enough problems with Iraq right now and the last thing Bush wants to do is get too involved in negotiations in Israel that haven't even started yet. So I guess, all the United States can do is say, "Yes, it's good to have negotiations."

Essentially, the Bush administration's policy is to follow the Israeli lead, while continuing to support the "road map" for peace. The position on the Gaza withdrawal was that any withdrawal from Palestinian territories is a good thing, and we still expect the Israelis and Palestinians to uphold their agreements to adhere to the "road map." During the meeting with Olmert, there was a slight change in that the administration did get the Israelis to agree to exhaust all possibilities for negotiations. The question is whether the administration will hold the Israelis to that. Abbas' statement is part of an effort to get the Israelis to uphold their commitment to negotiations.

It is interesting to me that article seven of the 18-point document says "PLO and President Mahmoud Abbas would be in charge of peace negotiations." It says nothing about the Hamas government. I guess it is similar to the U.S. situation where the president is in charge of negotiations but anything he agrees to—or in this case, Abbas agrees to—would be subject to ratification by Congress or the Hamas parliament.

This puts pressure on the Israelis. Because if the document had said "Hamas or all the factions" would be involved in negotiations, that would be a reason for the Israelis to say they would not negotiate with organizations that seek their destruction.

I guess we have to wait for a formal Israeli response.

It clearly took the Israelis by surprise. [Spokesman of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs] Mark Regev said Israel considered this an internal Palestinian matter. This is clearly an opening statement. We'll see what transpires in the next few days.

How did Olmert's visit to the United States go?

Pretty good. The only "concession" was that Olmert said they would seek to negotiate before pulling out unilaterally from parts of the West Bank. Bush did indicate support for the Israeli government, he did once again reiterate that Hamas needed to drop its military option and talk about the destruction of Israel. The President also came out very strongly on the Iranian nuclear issue, something that is of great concern to the Israelis.

Did Bush reaffirm what he had said to Sharon, about the need for the 1967 borders to be changed?

He did not say that. But the Israelis will hold him to what he said to Sharon. But let's realistically look at the situation. There is going to have to be an adjustment of borders. If you look at the settlements between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, if you look at Ma'ale Adumin, which is in the northeastern corner of Jerusalem, these are not what you would think of as "settlements." These are not places with trailers, etc. These are the functional equivalents of [the] bedroom communities of any metropolitan area in the United States. They are suburbs, with thousands and thousands of people living there.

So, it is unrealistic to think those settlements will be uprooted in the same way that illegal outposts in the West Bank will be, or even [the way] the 7,000 settlers from Gaza were evicted. This is an entirely different situation.

Under the Israeli "convergence" plan announced by Olmert, how many Israelis would be pulled out of the West Bank?

Israel would pull out from 90 percent to 95 percent of the West Bank and from several neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Altogether, some 50,000 to 100,000 Israelis would have to leave.

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