Ziad Asali
Council On Foreign Relations (Interview)
June 1, 2006 - 12:00am

Ziad J. Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, a group dedicated to setting up a state of Palestine alongside that of Israel, says that the call two weeks ago by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a referendum by Palestinians on whether to proceed with negotiations for a two-state solution with Israel has energized many Palestinians who had earlier believed he was too weak. "To have someone say 'enough of all this and let's just get a resolution of this issue,' and to have someone in charge, is, I'm sure, a welcome change for the Palestinians right now," says Asali, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, who has a medical degree.

He says that according to two reputable polls recently taken in the Palestinian territories, some 75 to 80 percent of those polled support the referendum idea, which is opposed by the Hamas-led government of the Palestine Authority, which is independent of President Abbas. "The people just want an end to this disastrous way of life. The Palestinians cannot see a way out of the present predicament other than by the two-state solution," he says.

What is your information on the mood in the Palestinian territories since President Mahmoud Abbas issued his statement about ten days ago, calling for a referendum on whether there should be negotiations with Israel if no deal can be worked out between Fatah and Hamas?

The impression I'm getting from the people I talk to over there is that there is a sense of relief that the Palestinians seem to think that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is acting like a leader. You know there has been widespread belief there that he is not leading the nation, or is too weak. So this is believed to be a bold move. In fact, somebody was telling me, "You know, we're treating him in Ramallah as if he was a major international figure." Of course what the Palestinians are dreading the most is civil strikes, lawlessness?an internally directed terrorism, if you will. To have someone say "enough of all this and let's just get a resolution of this issue," and to have someone in charge, is, I'm sure, a welcome change for the Palestinians right now.

Now the Hamas leadership says it rejects the idea of a referendum. Do you think a referendum can actually be held without the government's support?

This is actually a tough question. Elections were hard enough to hold, and the reason for the difficulty was the occupation, of course. Now there is an added problem where not just 20% of the population but the government itself, or at least the leaders of the government, are opposed to the referendum. That would present a serious practical problem if not just a political problem. It is my understanding that the people who are interested in the referendum are in the process of starting a countdown, preparing what to do to make sure that the referendum actually takes place and that it would reflect the will of the people as a final answer as to what it is that the people want.

Now what I've noticed lately is that virtually every government has issued new statements supporting the road-map-drafters' demand that the Hamas government renounce terrorism and recognize a two-state solution as the only possible outcome.

Well, there has emerged, over the course of the past ten years at least, a sense that the only way out of the situation in the Middle East is to establish a State of Palestine alongside Israel so that there will be an end of conflict. There is no other solution to end the conflict in reality. There is an international consensus about it as reflected by the so-called Road Map Quartet [the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations], which is after all the whole world. You have the United States, you have Europe, you have the Russians and the United Nations, which is the whole world, and then there is the Arab League, which is twenty-two different states, and there is the previous Palestinian administration, and the Israeli administration, all of them committed to the two-state solution.

So Hamas's opposition is truly an exception and a defiance to the international and Arab consensus that is outside of the norm. That is the reason why they are quite reluctant to accept the referendum. Hamas knows that the Palestinian people are for it, supported by the international community. Hamas interpreted its own electoral victory in the parliamentary elections as a mandate for its own policies, which is debatable, of course, because people think that was an election more against Fatah than it was for Hamas.

Yes. Now you were an observer at the elections that led to the election of Abbas as president to succeed Yasir Arafat.

Yes, in 2005.

That was an interesting time of hope.

And Abbas got more than 60 percent of the vote?

62 percent, yes.

62 percent. And clearly that was a vote in favor of his policies at that point. And the common wisdom is that the election that led to the Hamas parliamentary government was really an attack on Fatah corruption.

Well, in part. It was an attack on the way of life that Palestinians had led up to that point. They have found no hope in continuing the same policies. The quality of their life ha[d] degraded enough for them to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It was against everybody. But I suspect that after the vote and what they found out, that the price they're paying, with this international economic as well as political boycott, has been a little bit more than they bargained for when they voted for Hamas individuals in the legislative council.

I have been struck by the fact that the impetus for this referendum seems to have come from the statement issued by the prisoners in the Israeli jails that had the support of both Hamas and the other factions. Is this still getting a lot of attention in Gaza and the West Bank?

This is a significant event in and of itself, that the prisoners?that means a cross-section of the Palestinian political organizations from the extreme militants to the ones who just happened to have ended up in prison?have produced this document. And what is fascinating is that the Hamas leadership in prison signed, and so did Fatah leadership, Marwan Barghouti did, and one leader of Islamic Jihad, which is the most extrem[e] organization. He signed on except for one or two exceptions to the document.

So as far as Hamas is concerned, it presents a challenge in the fact that some of its top leadership in the West Bank have, by implication, accepted 1967 borders and a two-state solution. So there's perhaps a split in Hamas between some of the leadership in Gaza and the West Bank, other than the usual split between those who are inside Gaza and the West Bank and those who are outside in Damascus and other places.

Would you suggest a time table? Now I see Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is supposed to meet with Abbas later in June. And of course when Olmert was in Washington, which was before the referendum statement was issued by Abbas, Olmert had said he would try to negotiate with the Palestinians before he undertook any more unilateral withdrawals, although nobody thought he really was very sincere about that.

He may or may not have been sincere, but what was clear is that the Bush administration here really did want him to negotiate and the end result of internal discussions here [was] that he would take a very clear, committed approach to having those negotiations. The problem, of course, with all that is that at the very same time, he was laying down the underpinnings of this whole policy of unilateralism and getting some acceptance in Washington, where his withdrawal plan was described as "bold" by the president. So he did get some endorsement of sorts to the unilateral approach at the very same time when he was prodded to negotiate. There was a little bit of a contradiction in determining the outcome of the negotiations before they started.

Of course you have, in the current Israeli coalition government, a difference of opinion because Olmert's own defense minister, Amir Peretz, head of the Labor Party, is very interested in negotiating. I think a lot will depend on whether or not this referendum can actually get off the ground. I suppose he'll need some Arab support for this.

He has the Arab support. He has international support for it, and I think it has already made a difference, whether it takes place or not. You know it can be challenged, of course. Any government, and even any party that has armed people, could impose its will on them, could disrupt this process, so Hamas is in a position to disrupt it physically if it wants to, but it has to calculate its moves very carefully if the Palestinians in fact do support it by a majority of 80%, which is what we're seeing now.

Have polls been taken?

Yes, reputable polls. Up to now around 80 percent support the referendum.
Two polls actually have already published.

And it's 80 percent?

Yes, one was. I think both of them are 75 to 80 percent. There actually is no surprise in the Palestinian people's support for a two-state solution. Poll after poll after poll since the Oslo agreements has shown around 65 to 70 percent support for a two-state solution. I wasn't surprised that this would go up to 80 percent now, especially after the economic hardship of the past several months. The people just want an end to this disastrous way of life. The Palestinians cannot see a way out of the present predicament other than by the two-state solution. Their main concern, actually, is the other one, which is, is it too late for a state? They would be very willing to have a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem.

Of course if they do have negotiations it would be extremely difficult, I would think.

Well, of course it would be very difficult because there are three situations here that Israel finds objectionable. One is the fact that the question of refugees as stated in the prisoners' list of terms for negotiations was to be solved on the basis of the right of return. This is something that Israel would not accept. The borders as mentioned here in this document were the pre-1967 war borders. Of course this is something else that Israel would not quite readily accept either, and there is no mentioning of the recognition of the State of Israel that Israel wants out of Hamas. So these are things that Israel would not go along with readily, shall we say. There will be hard negotiations. But, you know, it gets us back at least to moving on beyond Camp David [talks that failed in 2000] and Taba [failed talks in Egypt in January 2001]. So of course they will have differences, but at least we're talking about things that can conceivably be bridged by negotiations.


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