The Prisoners’ document  and Abbas’s tactical error


Gershon Baskin


May 28, 2006



Mahmoud Abbas has made a courageous decision by issuing an ultimatum to the Hamas government to recognize the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.  A referendum on that issue could empower the Palestinian national movement in its calls to Israel to re-launch permanent status negotiations.  The problem with Abbas’ initiative is that he has tied it to the Prisoners’ document.  The document, written by Barghouthi and Natshe in the Hadarim prison is perhaps a good starting point for the internal Palestinian national dialogue, but it is a non-starter vis-ŕ-vis Israel.  From Israel’s point of view, the Prisoners’ document provides no acceptable point of entry for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  The document falls far too short on meeting each one of the international demands. Even on the issue of Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders, the document contains no explicit recognition of Israel.


The prisoners’ document also legitimizes the continued use of violence against Israel, although limiting the violence to areas within the West Bank.  This is something that no Israeli can agree to.  Furthermore, the document emphasizes over and over again the right of return for Palestinian refugees.  While this may completely reasonable for Palestinians, no Israeli government can agree to this. It is certainly legitimate for Palestinians to raise the right of return of refugees in negotiations, but if the Prisoners’ document is aimed at encouraging Israel to renew negotiations; it will not achieve those results. 


It seems that the decision of Abbas to link his ultimatum to the Prisoners’ document, and to perhaps hold a referendum on it, will fall far short of achieving the desired outcomes.  Israel and the international community will continue to demand explicit consent to the three demands that they issued:  recognition of Israel, recognition and adherence to existing agreements, and denouncement of terrorism.  If the referendum is held on the question of supporting or rejecting the Prisoners’ agreement, none of the three conditions will have been met and the exercise of stepping above the head of the PA government and going directly to the public will not produce the desired results. 


When Israel and the international community announce that the acceptance of the Prisoners’ document falls far short of answering the international demands, the Hamas will be able to claim to Abbas and to Fatah – we made steps forward but nothing has been received in return.  Abbas will have wasted an important initiative towards bringing the Palestinians back into international consensus and nothing will change regarding the international boycott against the PA.


Yes, the Palestinians must make a choice and must decide if they support the international demands.  Prior to the election of Hamas to the government, the Palestinian national movement’s goals were based on the three international demands.  Meeting those demands in 1988 provided the PLO with the immediate recognition by the United States.  Those demands were at the core of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the Political Statement of the PNC Meeting in Algiers on November 15, 1988.  That political statement is what led to the Oslo breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority that today rejects what was previously the basis for all Israeli-Palestinian agreements.


Abbas has made a huge tactical error in issuing the ultimatum to Hamas which falls far too short of what his demands should be. If Hamas fails to agree to accept the prisoners’ document, Abbas must expand the referendum to include the three international conditions and allow the Palestinian public to create the conditions for renewing the peace process. A referendum is a one-time event and it should not be wasted on voting for a document which cannot advance the Palestinian national agenda. Acceptance of the document by Hamas creates a winning scenario for Hamas and a losing one for Abbas.  Hamas can accept the document, and in doing so they will seem to advance the internal dialogue, but nothing will change in terms of the international outlook.  Hamas will claim that they are not an obstacle to international recognition and that making “concessions for free” offers no rewards.  After making the mistake of putting the prisoners’ document on the table, Abbas can only pray that the Hamas will reject it. 



Dr. Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.