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A careful and balanced evaluation of Mahmoud Abbas's new strategy is tremendously important. While in some respects it represents a step forward, it is also couched in the tricky double meanings Palestinian political groups have used to conceal their continuing goal of total victory in eliminating Israel. Moreover, nothing is likely to come out of it.
There are four important loopholes in the proposal: First, its main purpose is not to recognize Israel, but to outmaneuver Hamas in terms of domestic politics. Abbas's terms were that the referendum would go ahead only if Hamas did not reach agreement with Fatah. Moreover, of course, the main goals are to promote Palestinian unity and make international public relations gains.
Second, the plan very consciously leaves open the idea that gaining an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem is only the first stage in wiping Israel off the map.
Third, the priority given to the demand for a "right of return" as a condition of equal importance to gaining a state reveals the preceding point. The invocation of UN Security Council resolution 194 as a basis for this claim (a half-century-old, non-binding resolution intended to give instructions to a long-forgotten peace commission, which the Palestinians rejected) should be a joke that promotes laughter.
But the intention is to flood Israel with Palestinians set on its destruction. The problem is not just that this idea is never going to get Israel's agreement, but also that it continues to signal to Palestinians that they seek something far more than a homeland of their own alongside Israel.
In Abbas's words, Resolution 194 "is even more valuable than Resolution 242," a UN measure - it is often forgotten - that the PLO opposed at the time because that organization warned that it would permit border changes. Abbas specifically rejected anything less than every inch of the territories ruled before 1967 by Egypt and Jordan.
Fourth, the program justifies terrorism, albeit only in the territories captured in 1967 by Israel.
THE IDEA that the Palestinian Authority would explicitly advocate violence (it has been doing so in practice, of course, for a dozen years) makes a mockery of any possibility of it living up to the road map or being a partner for peace. Further, even if the referendum did pass, the PA security forces would not lift a finger to stop terrorist attacks on Israel.
Finally, the referendum will probably never be held, though Abbas has picked July 31 and says he will give a "presidential order" to do so. But only the Hamas-dominated PA can organize it, and will certainly refuse.
The positive aspect, which should not be overstated, is that this plan can begin a long-term reeducation of Palestinians to accept a real two-state solution. But it does so much less than the minimum for having a major effect in that direction.
Both aspects can be seen in the way Abbas defined his view: "There is a general national consensus, from Hamas to the Communist Party, that we want a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders... This is what we can do right now, this is what we are offered right now, and we are not talking about dreams in hazy terms... We want an independent state with [territorial] contiguity in which it is possible to live, within the 1967 borders. We want to end the occupation."
This is a good, pragmatic formulation - though we know what Hamas and most of Fatah wants to do with such a state - along the lines of: Let's get something real instead of fighting forever to get everything. It is to Abbas's credit that he understands this reality and speaks about it. Yet the other factors involved undercut this message, including the fact that most of Fatah's leadership continues to be more radical and not that different from Hamas, except for opposing the Islamicization of Palestinian society.
Maybe this is the best Abbas could do at this point. But if in the year 2006 their leaders still cannot go beyond this kind of language, that in itself is quite devastating in terms of the ability of Palestinians - who just voted overwhelmingly for Hamas and for Fatah hard-liners - to make peace.
AN INTERESTING piece of evidence on these issues is a Bir Zeit University poll. Some media highlighted the point that 77 percent of Palestinians support the plan. But the critical question is to ask what they think the plan says. The question does not define its provisions. Certainly, they do not seem to see the plan as a way of recognizing Israel in exchange for a permanent two-state solution.
The critical question was when those polled were asked to choose between Hamas rejecting recognizing Israel, or its recognizing Israel and thus receiving "funding from the international community." This is the sole question raising the recognition issue.
Notice it was posed in a way to maximize the latter response, that is, on the basis of direct financial benefit for those answering. Nevertheless, almost two-thirds opposed Hamas recognizing Israel (61 to 31 percent).
In other words, it seems a large majority of Palestinians support the plan - which they see as a way of promoting national unity and stopping chaotic Hamas-Fatah fighting - and also oppose recognition of Israel, or even a real two-state solution.
On other questions, generally not reported in the media, strong support for Hamas is shown. While 63 percent say their family income has declined, the performance of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is rated higher than that of Abbas (57 to 48 percent). And while about equal numbers say they would vote for Hamas and Fatah, 21.5 percent - most of them probably Hamas voters - say they are undecided. It can be argued that Hamas has lost some popularity, but far less than many would expect.
Abbas wants to consolidate Fatah popular support, stop the fighting with Hamas, force Hamas back into being Fatah's junior partner, gain more international support through a public relations campaign, and end the international sanctions against the PA.
Actually making peace with Israel is very far down that list of priorities, and successfully doing so is blocked by all Abbas's other domestic political considerations.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.
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