I have repeatedly accused Mahmoud Abbas of not listening to the Palestinian people, especially since the Israeli Palestinian Peace Talks Reunion Tour kicked off this summer in Washington, D.C. I admonished Abbas when Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu went to the Knesset to push through a law that would allow the Israeli public to vote on any peace agreement, and questioned why Abu Mazen didn't show the Palestinian people the same respect.
Apparently, I was the one who was not listening. On July 22, before the Palestinians officially returned to negotiating table, Abbas told the Jordanian newspaper Al Rai that any deal with Israel would be put to a vote amongst the Palestinian people. Unlike Netanyahu, he didn’t waste any time getting a bill passed, because that’s not how Abu Mazen rolls. He does what he wants and answers to no one. Abbas also has a history of suppressing dissent. Yet here he was clearly stating that the Palestinian people would get the final word and that he and the PLO were just negotiating on their behalf.
On Labor Day, Abbas reiterated his commitment to putting any agreement with Israel to a referendum, this time in a meeting with the Fatah Revolutionary Council. He stated that not only would any deal be put to a popular vote but that Palestinians everywhere would have a say. It’s fabulous that Abu Mazen, whose term as president is long up, finally seems to want to give the people the opportunity to have their voices heard. I highly doubt, however, that Palestinians everywhere or anywhere will get to vote on their fate in the foreseeable future.
The Palestinians have not been able to pull off a successful popular vote since January 2006, when Hamas, in a huge upset, beat the stuffing out of Fatah in the parliamentary elections. Fatah retaliated by trying to overthrow Hamas in the Gaza Strip. That was a very bad idea, executed by a very bad man named Mohammed Dahlan, and the two parties have been on the outs ever since. Hamas has vocally opposed the return to negotiations and the fact they were not invited to the party. Would they allow a vote to be held in Gaza on any peace deal brokered by Abu Mazen and friends? If so, would they campaign for or against the referendum? My money is on against, but I'm not a betting woman.
Abbas clearly stated he plans to include Palestinians everywhere. This would be a huge triumph. Palestinians "everywhere" were not allowed to vote in the 2006 elections. Only those in the West Bank and Gaza, and a small but mighty group of East Jerusalemites, were given that privilege. Israel initially attempted to block East Jerusalemites from voting in the parliamentary elections, but eventually gave in to international pressure. Israel had to allow the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote in the Palestinian elections because they are banned from participating in the Israeli ones. Palestinians voting in Jerusalem do not go to polling stations. Instead, they cast their ballots in sealed envelopes at Israeli post offices. This is much like voting absentee from a foreign country and allows Israel to avoid acknowledging Palestinians' claim to any of Jerusalem.
Will Israel try to block the Palestinian Jerusalemites from voting on the referendum like they tried to stop them from voting in the elections? Jerusalem is one of the biggest elephants in the negotiations room. The folks living inside its belly should definitely have a say, yet that is for Israel to decide—not Abbas, who needs a permit to enter Jerusalem.
One of the other giant issues on the negotiating table is the refugees’ right of return. Abbas said Palestinians everywhere—that obviously includes the refugees. Is Abbas planning to allow the refugees in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to vote? If so, how? Can they text “1” for yes, “2” for no, or “3” for Mohammed Assaf, like they did during Arab Idol?
Palestinians living in the diaspora also have a horse in this race. Will we be given the right to vote? How can those living in the diaspora without Palestinian documentation prove they are eligible? Will it be based on what percentage of their heritage is Palestinian or can anyone who owns a kuffiyeh vote? What about the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship? Did they give up their rights as Palestinians when they failed to flee Haifa, Jaffa, and Nazareth in 1948?
Assuming the PLO miraculously pulls it together and does hold a vote, there are Palestinians who will vote yes regardless of what the agreement is and there are Palestinians who will vote no regardless of what the agreement is. There are also those who believe Abbas is only saying that any deal will go to a referendum because he knows there isn’t going to be any deal and it’s an empty promise he won’t need to keep. Then there are those rare birds who are waiting to see what is actually put down on paper, as far as borders and refugee rights, before they decide which way to vote. Imagine that.
Across the board even the most devout supporters of the two-state solution were clear that East Jerusalem as the future Palestinian capitol is non-negotiable and they would definitely vote down any final agreement that didn’t include it. This is in line with what the Palestinian negotiating team has leaked as their non-existent pre-conditions, so if it did actually ever go to a vote, Abbas would have a shot at getting the Palestinian people to agree to a U.S.-brokered two-state solution. Recent polls show that a slim majority of Palestinians would support a viable two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. That is if the Israeli and Palestinian teams ever actually agree to anything, which is still far from a sure thing.