Abbas’ Move Challenges Both Hamas and Olmert

As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presses ahead with plans for another unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is determined not to be sidelined by Olmert’s go-it-alone approach. In late May, as Olmert tried to convince President Bush of the need for unilateral action, Abbas urged the Hamas-led Palestinian government to accept a package that would enable the Palestinians to break out of diplomatic isolation and emerge as full-fledged negotiating partners with a say on Olmert’s pullback plans.

The vehicle Abbas hopes to use to regain international legitimacy is an agreement hammered out between Palestinian prisoners from Hamas, being held by Israel, and his own Fatah organization, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The so-called “prisoners’ covenant” is based on the Saudi-initiated peace plan of 2002, which received widespread international support at the time.

Abbas has given Hamas 10 days to accept the package.

If not, he says he will go to the Palestinian people and ask them to approve the prisoners’ covenant in a referendum within six weeks. Should the Palestinians accept the covenant, analysts believe there could be strong international pressure on Israel to engage in peace talks on the basis of the Saudi plan. In this way, they say, Abbas hopes to re-establish the Palestinians as players and undercut Olmert’s unilateralism.

But it won’t be easy.

Hamas leaders have already rejected the plan and question Abbas’ constitutional right to call a referendum. Moreover, without Hamas’ compliance, Abbas may not have the power to stage and secure a nationwide ballot, even though most Palestinians seem to want one. Latest polls show that between 70 percent and 80 percent of Palestinians favor a referendum.

The Saudi plan is based on a “land for peace” formula. It stipulates that if Israel withdraws from all territory gained in the 1967 Six-Day War, all the Arab states will normalize their relations with Israel. Hamas, however, continues to reject anything that implies recognition of the Jewish state.

The radical movement’s leaders also reject other key elements of the “prisoners’ covenant.”

For example, they refuse to be bound by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and insist on the right of Palestinians to use force against Israel, not only in the occupied territories, but in Israel proper as well.

Abbas has evolved several strategies to overcome Hamas intransigence. One is the planned referendum. Another is the establishment of a national-unity Hamas-Fatah government in which he, as the senior Fatah representative, would be empowered to conduct negotiations with Israel, not only as the president, but in the name of the government as a whole.

Then there is the ultimate weapon: Abbas could dissolve the Hamas-dominated Parliament and call new elections.

If he manages to get the Palestinian people and polity to commit to the Saudi plan, Abbas will create a major dilemma for the international community.

On the one hand, senior American and European officials are highly skeptical about the Palestinian president’s ability to deliver. They note that in the three years since the formulation of the internationally approved “road map” peace plan, Abbas has done virtually nothing to implement it, and doubt whether things would be different with the Saudi plan.

On the other hand, both the Americans and Europeans would much prefer a negotiated settlement to unilateral moves by Israel, which they fear might spark more fighting rather than less.

Olmert is not only skeptical about Abbas. He also has deep reservations about the Saudi plan, which calls for withdrawal to the 1967 lines, without Israel retaining any of the large settlement blocs he wants to keep.

Moreover, the Saudi formula insists on eastern Jerusalem as the capital of the projected Palestinian state and it suggests that Israel would have to accept the Palestinian refugees’ right of return — positions Olmert rejects out of hand.

The prime minister, therefore, hopes to keep the Saudi plan off the international agenda. He plans visits to Egypt and Europe in the coming weeks to persuade key players that Abbas cannot be relied on to deliver, and that Israel’s unilateralism is the only game in town.

Olmert, however, may not have things all his own way. If Abbas is able to get the Palestinians to accept the Saudi initiative, Olmert could find himself under strong domestic and international pressure to make a serious negotiating effort, despite the skepticism about its efficacy.

After a recent meeting with Abbas, Ami Ayalon, a leading Labor Party legislator, declared that even though he rejected many of its stipulations, the Saudi plan “could be a basis for negotiation,” because it “supports the idea of a two-state solution.”

The key to whether the Saudi plan becomes a serious option — even if adopted by the Palestinians — lies in Washington. The American goal remains a negotiated two-state solution based on Bush’s “vision” that he outlined in June 2002.

U.S. leaders hope to further this aim by strengthening Abbas and using economic and political leverage to bring Hamas down or force it to moderate its positions. Backing the Saudi plan as a basis for negotiations could promote these ends.

But there is another possibility: that the Saudi plan be put on the table only after Israel completes its planned pullback or what Olmert is now calling “realignment.”

In his Washington meeting with Olmert last week, Bush made it clear that the United States was in no hurry to see unilateral Israeli moves, and wanted to give negotiations another chance. But Bush also assured Olmert that as soon as it became apparent that negotiations are going nowhere, Washington would back Olmert’s unilateral alternative, as long as it does not contradict Bush’s vision of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

Most importantly, Bush emphasized that the United States will not recognize the borders Israel pulls back to unilaterally as permanent. And he reiterated the American view that final borders must be agreed upon in negotiations between the parties.

It is here where some analysts believe the Saudi plan could come in: not as a means of pre-empting Israel’s “realignment,” but as a way of taking things further once it is achieved.

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