As Abbas presses for referendum, what Washington sees is all chaos


WASHINGTON — For a Bush administration closely watching events unfold in the Middle East, the equation couldn’t be starker: Israel has a plan; the Palestinians have chaos.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is unveiling his vision of the future in dribs and drabs, leaking plans this week for a negotiated Palestinian state in provisional borders and considering a staggered withdrawal: first settlers, then the army when things calm down.


By contrast, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is using a vaguely worded document drafted by prisoners and renounced by the Hamas-led P.A. government in a last ditch effort to consolidate power.

U.S. officials have refrained from commenting on Abbas’ weekend announcement of a July 26 referendum on a plan for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The document also includes what some say is implicit recognition of Israel within the 1967 borders, along with the demand — flatly rejected by Israel — for a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Instead, Bush administration spokesmen have focused on internecine fighting between those loyal to the Hamas terrorist group and those loyal to Abbas and his relatively moderate Fatah Party.

“Responsible parties in the government have to take responsibility for providing a safe and secure environment for the Palestinian people,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday. “It is fundamentally up to the Palestinians to take control of their own security situation.”

Taking a wait-and-see attitude is smart right now, said Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Defense Department’s Naval Postgraduate School.

“The West is deliberately looking at this as an internal Palestinian matter,” he said of the proposed referendum on the “prisoners document,” named for the Hamas and Fatah activists in Israeli prisons who drafted it. “You don’t want to take sides; it could backfire.”

Robinson believes Abbas’ gambit has less to do with Israel and the Americans and more to do with cornering Hamas.

“My own sense is that Abbas is setting the wheels in motion to take down Hamas,” he said, noting that polls suggest overwhelming Palestinian support for a two-state solution, as opposed to Hamas’ rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

Mouin Rabbani, a Jordan-based analyst with the International Crisis Group and a contributing editor to the Middle East Report, agrees that Abbas’ principal gambit is in cornering Hamas. But he believes the P.A. president also has his eye on Washington.

The referendum plan is “an indirect way of creating pressure” on Israel to move forward, he said.

Olmert seems up to the pressure, leaking plans to Ha’aretz on Tuesday to negotiate provisional borders with Abbas. Coupled with his offer this week to arm forces loyal to Abbas, that could satisfy U.S. insistence that Olmert exhaust every possibility to bolster the P.A. president, who is repeatedly described by U.S. spokesmen as a “partner for peace.”

The problem with that projection is that Abbas’ long-term plan is not yet clear — perhaps even to him — according to David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Abbas may want to change the Palestinian landscape. On the other hand, the referendum could merely be a tactic to split the Western determination to isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, Makovsky said.

“Is his hope to reshuffle the deck, using his presidential powers to disperse the Parliament and create the conditions for new elections?” Makovsky asked. “Or to peel Europeans away from the Americans in the financial boycott?”

In effect since Hamas assumed government in March, the boycott already has had an impact, Makovsky said.

“There has been a 13-point drop in Palestinian support for Hamas,” he said, citing a recent Bir Zeit University poll. “We’re finally seeing Abbas standing up” to Hamas.

Maintaining the unity of the boycott is vital, Makovsky said.

In any case, speculation about the effect of Abbas’ plan may be premature. A study by the Palestine Center, a Washington-based think tank, said the P.A.’s basic laws neither provide for nor forbid a referendum mandated by the president.

Rabbani said Abbas has a long way to go before the referendum gains him entree into the West’s good graces and negotiations with Israel.

“Hamas could turn this from a referendum on the substance of the prisoners document into a plebiscite on Abbas, which he’s not certain to win,” he said.

“If he does win, will Hamas go quietly or exercise the Samson option?” Rabbani asked, referring to a biblical Gazan who brought down the walls on his adversaries, sacrificing his own life in the process.

Even if it gets to the diplomatic stage, Rabbani said, “The most the Israelis are willing to cede” — believed to be some 90 percent of the West Bank, without eastern Jerusalem — “is less than the Palestinians are willing to accept. If this is a strategy for resuming for serious political negotiations with Israel, it’s going to fail.”