The need for a referendum

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The assignment the editors at Al Quds Educational television gave their reporter seemed simple: Go out and assess the public’s reaction to the suggestion by President Mahmoud Abbas to hold a referendum based on the Palestinian prisoners’ agreement.

Normally filming vox pox (short reactions of people in the street) takes twenty minutes. This time, Numan Kabaah, who was given this assignment, found it difficult to record on video 8-10 reactions representing different points of view. After almost two hours and 20 interviews, Numan couldn’t show a single Palestinian who was opposed to the referendum. Shifting from Rukab street in Ramallah to Manara Square and closer to Al Bireh produce market, he could find no one against a plebiscite that could put an end to the ongoing controversy in Palestine.

The controversy resulted in two seemingly opposing election results in the period of one year. Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority on a pro-peace platform that called for direct talks with Israel. Ismael Haniyeh and the members on his List for Change and Reform won the parliamentary elections on a platform that makes no mention of talks with Israel.

Israel and the international community have imposed an unjust siege on the Palestinian government because of the absence in Haniyeh’s programme of any mention that his administration would recognise Israel, accept previous agreements signed by the PLO and reject terrorism.

Despite the platform’s concentration on internal issues, those elected have insisted that their election victory is also a vote for the external programme of the Islamic movement Hamas (even though this was never explicitly mentioned in their programme). Even before the referendum takes place or its results known, simply by suggesting a referendum on this particular issue, Abbas has scored in more than one political playing field. It has weakened tremendously the attempts of the Haniyeh government to claim that it has a mandate to reject negotiations with and recognition of Israel. It has also embarrassed Israel’s Premier Ehud Olmert whose unilateral plan is anchored in the idea that there is no serious Palestinian partner he would recognise.

Immediately following the call for the referendum, Abbas’ popularity increased and the image of a weak, powerless president portrayed by Olmert before he left for Washington has now evaporated.

Support for the referendum is not limited to reactions to a television reporter in Ramallah. Scientific polls conducted within a week after the call have shown that more than two thirds of all Palestinians are in support of the referendum. But perhaps the most telling proof has come from Hamas itself. Different Hamas spokespersons have given mixed and at times contradictory positions on the idea of a referendum.

During and after the recent parliamentary elections, different Hamas leaders said that if they would be forced to decide on the recognition of Israel, they would put the question to the vote of the people. In his first interview after being elected speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Dr Azziz Dweek told Lebanese TV journalist Giselle Khoury on Al Arabiya satellite station that he would support a referendum on this issue if need be.

Dweek repeated this position shortly after Abbas made the call, but later claimed that the referendum idea presented by the president was unconstitutional.

Abbas’ referendum has exposed a simmering split within the Islamic resistance movement, which Hamas tried to keep behind the scenes. It has shown at least three different positions vis-à-vis recognition of Israel. Ironically, it turns out that the most moderate position within Hamas belongs to those in prison; those in the bigger prison of occupation and siege are not as moderate and those completely free in Syria are the most radical.

A deeper look reveals the obvious. Everyone knows that the balance of forces is not in favour of the Palestinians. So the differences of opinion are often focused on accepting a compromise now or waiting for the possibility of a better deal later; optimists hope the balance of forces will redress in the Palestinians’ favour. The more restrictive the conditions people live in the more they see the need for short-term relief and not just long-term dreams.

Hamas’ leaders in Damascus can wait for a long time because their daily lives are not affected by occupation, siege and imprisonment. There is an appropriate Arabic proverb. “Those who are feeling the whip are not like those counting the number of flogs.”

There is an even more important reason why prisoners and those under occupation have a more pragmatic point of view. A quick look at the Palestinian and Arab positions over the past half a century does not give much hope that things will be any better in 10 or 20 years. On the contrary, an honest look will show an erosion of the political programme. What we accept today (the 1967 borders) we rejected some time ago, and so on. Therefore, prisoners, whether behind bars or behind checkpoints, are not willing to waste their lives waiting five or ten years for their leaders to accept what they are rejecting now.

Abbas’ referendum offers Palestinians in the occupied territories the chance to make their views heard, not on the issue of governance and corruption, but on the strategic issues of what the borders of the state we want to live in are and how we want to deal with our neighbours. By using the document of the thousands of Palestinians behind bars and offering it to the millions of those under occupation and siege, Abbas has discovered the one issue which hopefully will clear the air and put the Palestinian people on the road to independence: democracy and freedom.

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