Palestinian reconciliation through the ballot box

By Khaled Diab

To break the destructive deadlock between and , should step down as Palestinian president, call immediate and organise referenda on the future course of the Palestinian struggle.

23 October 2009

Cursed as they are with bad leadership, the sad saga of the Palestinian people fluctuates between tragedy and farce. As if contending with a crushing occupation, embargoes, closures and the complete physical separation of the West Bank and Gaza were not enough, over the past couple of years, they have also seen the two parties supposedly representing them descend into petty and bloody factionalism.

To top it all off, one party is pragmatic and moderate but has failed to deliver peace or improve life for Palestinians. Instead, it has become aloof to the population, is rotten to the core with corruption and is widely perceived, with all the international funds flowing into its coffers and the American general Keith Dayton wielding significant control over the Palestinian Authority's  security forces in the West Bank, to have become a kind of mercenary force for the Israeli occupation.

But the frying pan of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority may prove to be nothing compared with the fire and brimstone of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). Hamas may be less corrupt – for now – but it is ideologically fanatical, has been working hard to purge dissent in Gaza, is already restricting the freedom of Palestinians on the Strip, especially women, and, given its ideological rejection of as a Jewish state, is far less willing to compromise with the Israelis. Of course, Israel and the international community did nothing to engage with Hamas's early overtures towards moderation and, instead, punished Gaza, causing the party to harden its position and rhetoric.

With this poison and bitterness filling the air, it was perhaps optimistic to expect 's efforts – despite the country's long experience as a mediator – to broker a truce between the two parties to reach fruition, especially since US president Barack Obama's shift in rhetoric has not yet been matched by any shifts in reality.

The talks ostensibly broke down because of Hamas's anger over the PA's delay in endorsing the Goldstone report into Israeli war crimes in Gaza, which also criticises Hamas – albeit to a lesser extent – for targeting Israeli civilians. The party went so far as to accuse Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of betraying the victims of the Israeli offensive.

However, given how fundamentally the two factions differ and how Hamas appears to want to take over the helm of the Palestinian cause, it could just as well have been anything else. So, even if Egyptian diplomats manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat, any deal could quickly run against the rocks, particularly as trust of both Fateh and the Egyptians – who are perceived as agents of America and collaborators with Israel by certain segments of the Palestinian and wider population – is low.

It is abundantly clear that Abbas, whose position keeps changing with the winds, has lost the plot and the only parties who continue to support his presidency are the Americans and Israelis. But this support is misguided. The presence of a weak and unpopular Palestinian president may serve the interests of extremists, for whom the prospect of continued Palestinian infighting is convenient, but it does little to forward the long-term prospects for peace.

To my mind, it is time for Abbas – who was once respected as a key architect of the Oslo accords and hammered out a workable blueprint for comprehensive peace with Yossi Beilin, which was derailed by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – to go, in dignity, and make room for the people to decide.

Abbas has already said repeatedly that the only way out of the impasse with Hamas is through the ballot box. But instead of delaying elections till the middle of next year, as Egypt has proposed, they should go ahead as scheduled in January – or earlier, if possible. In the meantime, Abbas should resign and hold his position only in a caretaker capacity until a new president is elected.

In addition, the issues facing the Palestinians are too controversial and complex to be left to any one party to decide. I believe that a series of referenda – financed by the international community – should be conducted on crucial questions of war and peace: negotiation v's confrontation; violence v's non-violence; two states or one; civil rights or national rights; Jerusalem, refugees, etc. A similar exercise should also be carried out among Israelis to crystallise what kind of future they desire.

Equipped with such clear expressions of popular will, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can engage with a clear mandate, assuming that both sides' vision for the future is compatible or, at the very least, reconcilable.

Personally, I hope neither Fatah nor Hamas win the elections. The Palestinians deserve a change of guard. Though I'm not Palestinian, my vote goes to Mustafa Barghouti and his Palestinian National Initiative.

This is an extended version of an article written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNS). It first appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 21 October 2009, and in the Kuwait Times and on 22 October 2009.

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