December 21 2006 02:00 |
Last weekend's decision by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to call
early elections has not ended the deadlock between his nationalist Fatah party
and Hamas, the Islamist movement that won a stunning victory in last January's
elections. It has instead led to the two factions shooting it out on the
streets of Gaza.
While the fighting abated yesterday as a new ceasefire appeared to take hold,
Mr Abbas's move was, in any case, a desperate gamble. It is far from clear it
will improve either the desperate lot of the Palestinians or already slim
chances of reviving meaningful peace negotiations with Israel.
The Palestinians have become regressively more isolated since the surprise
Islamist win, which provoked an international boycott by Israel and the west,
who demand that Hamas recognises Israel and renounces violence.
Opinion polls before and after the election show that voters were punishing
the party of the late Yassir Arafat for corruption and incompetence and
expressing their frustration at the failure of the Oslo peace process to
deliver them a viable homeland. They were not then, or now, rejecting an
independent state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Arab east Jerusalem as
its capital - a prospect that still regularly commands the support of
two-thirds to three-quarters of Palestinians.
What they have actually got, however, is a disaster. Hamas cannot govern. The
Palestinian economy, starved of aid, investment and taxes withheld by Israel,
is collapsing. Israel has increased the number of settlers in the occupied
West Bank, sealed off east Jerusalem and the Jordan valley and responded to
sporadic rocket-fire with a siege of Gaza that has resulted in hundreds of
Now, unless their leaders come to their senses, Palestinians face the spectre
of civil war. Hamas supporters say Mr Abbas, with Israeli and western
connivance, is launching a coup d'etat. Fatah argues that Hamas is leading
Palestinians into an abyss. Either way, new elections - that Hamas might well
win - are not necessarily the answer.
A better idea was a referendum Mr Abbas threatened last May on whether
Palestinians still want a two-states solution. That would have put both Hamas
and Israel on the spot.
The idea was based on a deal reached by jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti
and imprisoned Hamas leaders. It implies de facto recognition of Israel within
its 1967 borders; Hamas membership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation
(which recognises Israel); and backs the 2002 Arab League peace offer,
recognising a Jewish state although not one in expansion.
Hamas and Fatah leaders alike must keep trying to build a government of unity
behind these proposals - a working government that alleviates rather than
exacerbates the suffering of Palestinians and that might, just might, deliver
them the state they want.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
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