In a recent article in The New Republic, former US peace envoy Dennis Ross wrote:
“Make no mistake about it, if Hamas wins the next elections in two years (for President and Legislative Council,) the conflict will be transformed from a national conflict into a religious conflict. If that happens, we'll be out of the peace-making business for a long time, and Islamists will be able to dominate the most evocative issue in the region.
Ross has recognized that the Palestinian public, through elections, has become the most important Palestinian decision maker. Further, he understands that the next Palestinian elections will be of even greater importance to Israel than the last ones.
Unfortunately, neither Ross nor anyone else has a strategy for avoiding an electoral debacle that will close the 20-year opportunity to end the conflict that opened when the PLO accepted Israel's right to exist in 1988.
If present trends continue, the next elections may result, as Ross suggests, in a Hamas victory in both the Presidential and Legislative elections. In a recent Palestinian poll a plurality of Palestinians indicated that if the vote were held today they would support a Fatah list (31.6%) over a Hamas list (24.3%); however, this is not unlike polls prior to the last election, and with Hamas' far greater organizational discipline another victory in the Legislative elections is a reasonable guess.
More problematic for those seeking to resolve the conflict, is the Palestinian response when asked, “Which Palestinian personality do you trust the most." Prime Minister Haniyeh got more support than President Abbas, 19.5% to 12.4%. It is quite possible that next time around Haniyeh will run for the Presidency and win. Indeed, it is quite possible that Abbas will not even run for re-election. And for those who envision the currently imprisoned Marwan Barghouti as the candidate for Fatah, it is worth noting that only 5.1% of the population identified him as most trusted.
If Hamas does gain full control over the Palestinian Authority, this will mean the end of an era. The PLO will become irrelevant, and the opportunity to end the conflict will have been lost. If this is to happen, let it come after the Palestinian people have faced a real moment of truth, a real opportunity to say “Yes" to a concrete peace proposal.
Strong support for two-state solutionRather than allowing the next Palestinian elections to be about personalities, or corruption, or economics or good government, Israel should strive to have them be about peace and the two-state solution. Here the Palestinian moderates are on strong political ground. When asked to choose between the two-state solution and a single bi-national state in all of historic Palestine, the Palestinian public strongly endorsed the two-state solution (46.7%) over a bi-national state (26.5).
The strategy that is needed requires going in the direction that Condoleezza Rice advocates, but going much further. What is needed in not a political horizon, but rather, a political solution. The next Palestinian elections should be a referendum on an end-of-conflict offer from Israel.
There are a variety of ways this could come about. Ideally, prior to the elections, there would be successful bilateral negotiations that result in a peace agreement. Under those circumstances either the Palestinian Presidential election would be viewed as a referendum on the accord, or there would actually be a referendum on the treaty along with the elections.
A more likely alternative would be a plan coming from the outside, from the US, or the Quartet or the UN Security Council. If Israel said “yes" to such a plan, Abbas, if he is running again, could say that he too will say “yes" but only if re-elected.
But what plan is there that an Israeli government might agree to and which Abbas would be willing to take to the Palestinian electorate? There is only one such plan, and that is the Clinton plan, or more specifically, a fully detailed treaty, roughly based on the Clinton parameters.
PLO Chairman Abbas is willing to negotiate a final-status agreement on the basis of the Clinton parameters, and if an agreement is concluded, he is prepared to take it to the Palestinian public in a referendum. Moreover, Hamas has agreed to a “ratification by referendum" approach of that sort. But what about Israel? Recently, when asked if he supported the Clinton parameters, Prime Minister Olmert said that he did not. This, however, should not be taken too seriously.
By the time of the next Palestinian elections, we will have a new government in the United States. Even if there is a Republican Administration, it will not be wedded to the ABC (anything but Clinton) orientation that dominated the Presidency of George Bush. And if there is a Democratic president, Bill Clinton himself might be named special envoy for the peace process.
Indeed, in the next Israeli elections, it is likely that either Barak or Ayalon, both already identified with specific peace plans, will propose re-offering the Palestinians a peace agreement based on the Clinton parameters. If he is a candidate, Prime Minister Olmert is unlikely to reaffirm his rejection of the Clinton parameters. It would be a very foolish prime minister who would run against the legacy of Bill Clinton.
But rather than being reactive, Prime Minister Olmert should act now. He should seize the initiative and offer a Clinton-like peace proposal to the Palestinian people. President Abbas will take it to a referendum and if it is rejected at least we would have clarity.
The Palestinians would have made a decision as fateful as the rejection of the Partition Resolution in 1947. President Abbas and the PLO will have been repudiated. Hamas will be in control. It will then be time to consider the 10-year hudna (temporary ceasefire,) but first the Palestinian people need and deserve an opportunity to say “yes" to a reasonable peace offer.
Jerome M. Segal directs the Peace Consultancy Project at the Center for International and Security Studies of the University of Maryland