Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas wants Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories to vote in July on whether they want a future Palestinian state living peacefully beside Israel. This deserves the closest attention by Israel and all others concerned, including a Bush administration that has unfortunately retreated from earlier insistence on a negotiated creation of a Palestinian state.
The Abbas referendum proposal is based on a document that appeals to many Palestinians. In April, senior figures from Hamas (now controlling the government), Fatah (which lost legislative control in the January elections), and three other groups, all serving time in Israeli jails, signed a "prisoners' document." It endorsed a future Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders with Israel, and Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.
Such concepts are nonstarters for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Israeli government. It claims to see no valid Palestinian negotiating partner. (Despite Mr. Olmert's praise of Mr. Abbas for the ears of a supportive US Congress during his recent Washington visit, Olmert earlier ridiculed Abbas as "weak" and "powerless" to negotiate peace.) Olmert's proclaimed intention is to unilaterally withdraw from outlying Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. He would incorporate the large settlement blocs into Israel proper and complete the separation wall along Israel's new unilaterally expanded border. Palestinians and the Arab-Muslim states call this a land grab.
Abbas's main goal appears to be winning popular endorsement of the de facto recognition of Israel and an end to violence. Hamas, despite its steady observation of a terrorist truce for the past 14 months, formally refuses both principles. A referendum's support for the "prisoners' document" could force Hamas, officially dedicated to a single Islamic state replacing Israel, to abandon this doctrine in favor of the more popular two-state solution. This, in turn, could end the US and Israel-led international aid embargo on the Hamas regime. The embargo is squeezing the Palestinians in a terrible economic vice and further ravaging their already poverty-stricken society.
Abbas promised during recent talks between his Fatah organization and Hamas that he'd call the referendum if Hamas didn't agree to his two-state peace formula by the end of this week. Hamas is threatening to boycott the referendum.
There's nothing new in the formula. It is the old doctrine of Fatah and its parent organization, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Hamas arose outside the PLO, which formally recognizes Israel. Once, to secure dialogue with the US before the US-endorsed the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the PLO renounced terrorism. Abbas and some senior PLO allies would like to align Hamas with PLO policies, and so neutralize its more radical dogmas.
An immediate goal of Abbas is to win out in Fatah's intramural power struggle with Hamas and its security forces. This began in March, with occasional fatal internecine clashes, after Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority from Fatah. Fatah still more or less controls about 50,000 of these security forces. Many of them have violently protested the cutoff of salaries for them and other civil servants since the international aid embargo.
In May, the Hamas interior ministry produced a new 3,000-man security force to confront the Fatah-controlled forces. Other factions have fielded smaller militias of their own in Gaza since last year's unilateral Israeli withdrawal. The latest statistics on Palestinian misery, aggravated by the aid embargo, are eloquent. The International Labor Organization (ILO) says 4 out of 10 Palestinians in the territories now live below the official poverty line of $2.10 a day. ILO sets the jobless rate at 40.7 percent. World Food Program head Arnold Vercken, after seeing children digging for food in Gaza garbage dumps, estimated that about 2 million people, nearly half under age 18, suffer from "lack of food security."
What Palestine urgently needs is a coalition government of national unity. This could craft a realistic policy toward Israel and restore the financial life support its people need from the outside world. After the January elections, Fatah unfortunately rejected Hamas overtures to join in such a coalition government. Abbas may hope that this could still happen if his referendum is successful. The US and other interested powers should support the idea of a national unity government.
Whatever the result of Abbas's risky gamble, the failure of which could end his own tenuous influence and his career, US and international diplomacy should do everything possible to restore aid. It's in the best interests of the Palestinians, their nominal allies in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the rest of the world and Israel itself to help restore unity of ranks and unity of purpose to the Palestinians - and to give them decent living standards.
• John K. Cooley covered the Middle East for the Monitor for more than 40 years.