Abbas's Palestinian referendum offers only false hope
Good news from the Palestinian territories is a rarecommodity, so rare that there is an understandable tendency to overstate its significance when it comes.
So it is with opinion formers across the western world, who have fallen over themselves to embrace the recent call of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, for a referendum, widely billed as the latest great hope for re-starting the peace process since Hamas was elected in January.
What has caused the most excitement is the proposal, in Article 1 of the so-called National Accord Document, for a Palestinian state "with holy Jerusalem as its capital on all territories occupied in 1967". References across the global media to the "implicit recognition" of Israel which that statement supposedly carries have been practically ubiquitous.
It is difficult to believe that many people making such claims have actually read the document in question, let alone faced up to the fact that its support by Palestinian prisoners means it is directly associated with some of the most violent and radicalised activists in the Middle East. The central problem is hardly confined to the fine print and comes immediately after theproposal for statehood with a call for "the right of the refugees to return". The same point is repeated with greater emphasis in Article 9.
What this amounts to is a demand for all refugees and their descendants from the period around the Israeli war of independence in the late 1940s to have the option of relocating to Israel proper. It is not hard to see that what is at work here is simply the same old coded message for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state that has blown all previous peace efforts out of the water. Add the 3.5m to 4.25m people claiming such refugee status to the more than 1m Arabs who already reside in Israel and the result would be an Israel with almost equal Jewish and Arab populations. To use the heated, though apt, idiom of the Israeli right, the call is still "annihilationist" in character.
But taking a broader view, what is in the document to be set before the Palestinian people on July 26 is far less worrying than what is left out. The point is this: nearly six decades since the Jewish leadership accepted the United Nations' decision to establish two states, we are still dealing with a Palestinian leadership that will not offer its people a document for popular ratification that explicitly recognises Israel's legitimate right to exist as a Jewish state. In the context of all that has gone before, "implicit" recognition is, at best, meaningless. At worst, it is yet another subterfuge along the lines of the famous letter sent by the Palestine Liberation Organisation to Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister, on September 9, 1993. In this letter, the PLO said it recognised the right of Israel to exist in peace and security - a promise whose emptiness was revealed by Yassir Arafat's subsequent rejection of the Bill Clinton-brokered Camp David accords and the bloody intifada he launched after it.
Outside the region, it is perhaps understandable that many in Europe and the US have chosen not to delve too deeply into what Mr Abbas is, and is not, proposing. The referendum gets them out of a hole. It would allow the west to participate in a polite fiction, letting them restore aid to the Palestinians and thus regain some much sought after moral authority in the greater Middle East.
But inside the region, there is no substantive reason to doubt the assertion of Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, that, as far as peace prospects are concerned, the referendum is basically pointless. That conclusion is bolstered by the fact that, even as some polls show it would be passed by the Palestinian people, two other recent polls published by the Palestinian Wafa news agency's website show more than 60 per cent of them opposed to the proposition that Hamas should recognise Israel in return for the resumption of foreign aid. In other words, most Palestinians will not even recognise Israel if they are paid to.
In the end, all people of goodwill feel for the suffering of both sides in this conflict, perhaps the more so for the Palestinians whose national tragedy has been to such a great extent of their own making. But sentimentality, like the raising of false hopes, will get us nowhere. The problem is what it has always been and Mr Abbas has yet to prove that he really wants to solve it.
The writer is a senior transatlanticfellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are his own.