Abbas Threatens Referendum on Palestinian State

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced he will call for a referendum on an Israeli proposal for a Palestinian state if Hamas does not agree to it within ten days.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday he will call a national referendum on accepting a Palestinian state alongside Israel if Hamas does not agree to the idea within 10 days. Abbas’ surprise announcement was a political gamble that could either help resolve the Palestinians’ internal deadlock or lead them into a deeper crisis with the militant Hamas group.

Such a vote would effectively ask Palestinians to give implicit recognition to Israel by accepting a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in 1967. Approval of the 18-point plan would provide a way out of the impasse over acceptance of Israel, which has led to an international freeze on aid to the Hamas-led government.

Hamas officials were divided over the idea of a referendum, with several giving their blessing, but others dismissing it as an attempt to undercut the Hamas-led government. A referendum, which Palestinian pollsters expect to pass, could provide cover for the militants to moderate without appearing to succumb to Western pressure. Such a vote could also renew pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table rather than imposing borders on the Palestinians.

This is a brilliant stroke by Abbas. At best, it could be a great leap forward in the so-called “peace process” with Israel. A two state solution is the only practical one. At worst, it could escalate Palestine’s slide toward civil war. While tragic, that would at least bring the issue to a head and resolve it one way or the other.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The only question I have is if the referendum is legal. Imagine our country deciding on whether to stay in Iraq as long as it takes or to remove our troops immediately (yes I know there is lots of middle ground between those two positions, but for the sake of argument lets assume that was the choices in the referendum). While you could argue that the 2004 presidential election was a proxy for that referendum, it was not the referendum in and of itself. By the same argument you could claim the recent Palestinian elections which put Hamas in power despite their stated goal of wiping out Israel has also been the proxy for this referendum. And again, more was at stake in the PLA elections than just the question of a 2 state solution.

    I am unclear (and it may well be my own ignorance that is making it unclear) as to how under our constitution we would have a binding referendum. It is less clear (though easier to see) how a non-binding referendum would be held here.

    As fast as the PLA goes, I agree that this makes perfect sense if you don’t like Hamas (a position I suspect Abbas is in). If the referendum is held and the voters support the idea of Israel being allowed to continue to exist, then either Hamas bows to the will of the voters (with egg on their face for their previous stance and lots of the extreme elements cursing them) and the foreign funds flood starts up allowing them to fund their government. Or Hamas defies the referendum and you they start to lose prestige as they are seen to be defying the will of the people domestically and a dangerous fringe element that justifies the cut off of funds indefinitely internationally.

    Or the referendum comes back with a “wipe Israel out” vote. Hamas would clearly not shed a tear on this and support it, guaranteeing that they will see a continued funds embargo and eventually the hungry bellies will force them from power. I can’t seriously see Hamas defying a referendum to not acknowledge a separate Israeli state and reversing their stand.

    Of course with PLA elections, you also have to worry about the fairness of the vote on a referendum.

    As a final thought, imagine if Hamas was able to buy a clue. They would talk nice (at least internationally) about the peace process. They would claim their goal is not the destruction of Israel but that there is one state. They would assure the world that all Jews would be welcome and safe in such a one state Palestine, though of course their would be investigations into Israeli atrocities. They would say that they would treat Jews as well as the Jews have treated Muslims. That this whole thing is just about who should be in control, not fundamental issues like killing all the Jews. That if the Israelis would just allow the question to be handled in a fair and open election, they wouldn’t be forced to resort to the detestable methods of force. Europe and the American left would eat it up. And Israel would be in the position of the Zimbabwe white farmers of knowing the train wreck was coming but being powerless to stop it.

    Or alternatively, the Palestinians would recognize one of the most effective revolutions against the west in the form of Gandhi and India. Imagine a long line of Palestinians peacefully shuffling towards Israel, submitting to conks on the heads. World opinion that rejects suicide bombers as a means would likewise reject Israel attacks.

    But neither is likely to occur as the Palestinians have gone to far down the suicide cult path to change now.

  2. James Joyner says:

    yaj: Our constitution does not provide for referenda on national issues; many state consitutions do for state issues. Many European countries all for referenda; see, for example, the various votes on EU expansion. I don’t know what the rules are under the Palestinian equivalent.

  3. RA says:

    As long as a large majority of Palestinians want to drive all Jews into the sea, the “peace process” is a joke. There will be no peace, under any circumstances.

    A Palestinian civil war, very bloody and with much loss of life, would be a far better thing to happen. The Palestinians must be made tired of killing before any meaningful negotiations take place.

  4. James,
    That was the point of my comment. Is Abbas using a lever in their government/constitution in a wily way or is he basically proposing something outside of the rules. Normally, given Hamas’s support among the Palestinians, the opposition using a referendum would not be a good idea. A majority would side with Hamas and your position is worse. But in this case, even having a majority side with Hamas would help Abbas as it would likely result in the financial screws on Hamas being tightened.

    From the story, I get the sense that either no one is familiar enough with the idea of a government of laws to ask the question “is it legal” or that the referendum is in the constitution (or whatever they call their fundamental government rule set).