Whether or not Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can succeed with a bold referendum that would define a Palestinian state that implicitly acknowledges Israel, his push for it reveals an obvious truth: The anti-Israel Hamas government is hugely out of step with "the people."
A large and silent majority of Palestinians – heretofore heard only through opinion polls – supports two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side. But Hamas, which in January was elected to power in parliament and runs the Palestinian Authority's ministries, has been happy for that majority to remain silent.
Holding to its official position favoring the destruction of Israel, the militant Hamas has refused to recognize Israel or commit itself to past agreements moving both sides toward a peace deal and a two-state solution. That stubborn position has rained down drenching economic hardship and international isolation on Palestinians, as Europe, the United States, and Israel held back funds to force Islamist Hamas to change its position. But so far, nothing has dislodged it.
Mr. Abbas – weak, cautious, and isolated as the Palestinian Authority president and leader of the minority, secular Fatah Party – surprised everyone with his statehood referendum idea. But it's probably his smartest move yet, given that only people power, it appears, will ever have the oomph or authority to bring Hamas to change its outmoded and harmful stance. For a party that claims its mandate from democratic elections, it's a face-saving way out of an uncomfortable box – and consequently, a way for the Palestinians out of their present crisis.
As often happens in Middle East politics, however, windows of opportunity can be small indeed.
Israel and the armed wing of Hamas appear to be on the precipice of serious, renewed violence. After a blast, presumed to be Israeli, killed beachgoing Palestinians last week, Hamas called off its 16-month cease-fire with Israel, significantly upping rocket attacks. In turn, Israeli officials threatened to assassinate the Hamas prime minister if Hamas's infamous suicide bombings resumed.
In the Palestinian territories, meanwhile, political and military infighting between the Hamas and Fatah factions has intensified markedly. Hamas is determined to stop the referendum, branding it as an attempt to bring down its government, pulling previous support for it, and pointing to renewed Israeli military attacks as justification for its hard-line position.
It also hasn't helped that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismisses the referendum as "meaningless," a mere "internal game."
Granted, the referendum – which calls for a Palestinian state made up of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem (i.e., the boundaries before Israel gained those areas in the 1967 Six-Day War) – is hardly ideal. It's a simple question for a complex problem, a nonstarter as far as the Israelis are concerned, and could be politically divisive, or at least Hamas would have Palestinians believe that.
But with its implicit recognition of Israel, the referendum – which would be nonbinding – is a step toward the peace process. And there are no such other steps in that direction now.