Mr. Abbas’ challenge to Hamas and other groups to support a proposal drafted by prominent Palestinian prisoners that seeks a negotiated agreement with Israel is a critical step toward ending the political paralysis. For nearly six decades, the Palestinians, though used and abused by the Arab states and their own leaders, have remained fixated on Israel as the source of all their ailments.
Surely, living under occupation is inherently abnormal and impacts profoundly the daily life of every Palestinian. This fact, however, must not translate into social and economic paralysis or become the rationale for a never-ending internal conflict that tears apart the Palestinian social fabric.
Sixty years of factionalism, intrigue, and infighting have only produced more discord and deepening internal conflict. Tens of thousands of able-bodied young men are idling on the dusty streets, the poor are despairing, the better off have no place to turn to, while the average man and woman wonders aloud what in the name of God is happening and why. This self-inflicted, festering social and political wound threatens to erode what is left of Palestinian civil society.
Tragically, however, in the face of this reality, nearly every Palestinian faction and splinter group seems more concerned with its own selfish narrow interest. Many use lofty terms like “national unity” and “patriotism” to camouflage their incompetence and ineptitude. For how much longer will these leaders continue to blame Israel, each other, and the world for their own shortcomings and for worsening plight of their people? And for how much longer must the people wait to realize their national redemption?
End in sight
For the first time in the long history of the debilitating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the end of occupation is in sight. This is the moment for the Palestinians to come to grips with the realities on the ground. The new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is committed to ending the occupation in one form or another, and however this occurs, the Palestinian people should benefit greatly.
A negotiated settlement, however, would certainly preferable than a unilateral disengagement. But if the Palestinians want to negotiate the Israeli withdrawal, they must first end all hostilities against Israel, and second, they must produce a national consensus that accepts Israel’s existence.
For far too long the Palestinian leadership, especially Hamas, have been living in denial about the reality of Israel; in the process they’ve dragged their people into a terrible abyss. At this point, denying Israel’s existence has become sheer lunacy.
The idea behind the referendum is solid and momentously important: for once let the Palestinian people determine their own fate. Do they want an end to the bloodshed, to live in peace and prosper side-by-side with Israel, or do they want an endless struggle that will produce more destruction and despair; and also the likelihood of their forfeiting any prospect of establishing a free and independent Palestinian state?
After the loss of two generations of Palestinians to anguish and hopelessness, the time has come to prevent the subjugation of the next generation to the disastrously misguided illusions of the past. Every Palestinian child deserves a better future, and this ideal must be the core of the national agenda and the national dialogue.
Mr. Abbas has been accused of being a weak and ineffective leader, but he has a chance to turn the corner and demonstrate, at this fateful hour in Palestinian history, that he can change the political dynamic, lift up his people, and give them hope. Although poll after poll suggest that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians supports the two-state solution, an affirmation of this consensus by a popular vote will help Mr. Abbas to formulate a coherent policy toward Israel and propel both sides toward a more equitable agreement.
An orderly and legitimate referendum will put every faction and ideological group to the test. It is time to let the people chart their own destiny.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of International relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute in New York. email@example.com