Abbas proposes Palestinian referendum over terms of state

RAMALLAH (Agencies) — In a bold ultimatum, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday gave Hamas 10 days to accept the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and said he’ll submit the plan to a referendum by mid-July if Hamas refuses.

Abbas’ surprise announcement is a political gamble that could either help resolve the Palestinians’ internal deadlock or lead them into a deeper crisis. As he spoke, internal violence erupted again in Gaza.

A group of policemen riding in a car on their way back from the funeral of a top security commander in Gaza City clashed with a newly formed Hamas unit, and one of the officers was wounded, security officials said.

At nightfall, another three officers in the presidential guard on patrol in Gaza City were shot and wounded, officials said. They said the gunfire came from the direction of a Hamas unit. In the past week, 10 people have been killed in clashes between Hamas and Abbas’ Fateh Party.

Fateh and Hamas leaders summoned talks in Ramallah and Gaza to defuse the crisis, and Abbas used the opportunity to challenge Hamas to adopt a programme that implies recognition of Israel or let the people decide.

Hamas, which is facing a crippling international boycott because of its refusal to moderate, appeared to be divided over the idea of a referendum. The Islamic fighters won parliamentary elections in January, and took over the Palestinian Authority on February 18.

Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately last year, asked Hamas to endorse a document drawn up by senior Palestinian fighters imprisoned in a southern Israeli lockup. It accepts statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

Approving the document would imply recognition of Israel — one of the three conditions imposed by Israel and the West for doing business with the Hamas government. The document falls short of meeting the other two conditions — renouncing violence and accepting past peace accords — so it was unclear if the international boycott would be called off even if Hamas acquiesced.

However, a referendum, which Palestinian pollsters expect to pass, could provide cover for the fighters 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.

The document was conceived in a wing for 120 Palestinian security prisoners at the Hadarim jail, with many of the sessions taking place in the prison yard, said Khader Shkirat, a lawyer for one of the key signers, Fateh leader Marwan Barghouthi. An inmate from Hamas also signed the document.

Since taking power, Hamas leaders have sent mixed signals about their willingness to soften their stance.

Hamas ideology does not accept a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East, and Hamas does not accept interim peace accords with a state it does not recognise. Hamas suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israelis over the past decade.

Abbas has been seeking to counter Hamas’ power, removing authority over security forces from the Hamas-controlled interior ministry and asserting that he has the authority to conduct peace negotiations with Israel.

In response, Hamas fielded its own 3,000-strong force in Gaza in defiance of Abbas’ ban, setting off clashes with Fateh-dominated security forces.

Abbas decided to bring things to a head on Thursday amid a rapidly deteriorating economic, political and diplomatic situation. The West’s decision to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian government has left it unable to pay 165,000 public employees whose salaries form the backbone of the Palestinian economy.

Abbas gave Hamas 10 days to achieve a political accord with him or face the people again within 40 days.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was noncommittal.

After the dialogue is completed, he said, “we will study how the call for a referendum is compatible with the law, the constitution and politics.” Other Hamas figures were in disagreement.

“Returning to the people is one of the most important principles in democracy,” said Parliament Speaker Abdul Aziz Duaik of Hamas, adding that the prisoners’ document was a good basis for dialogue.

However, Hamas legislator Mushir Al Masri said that a referendum was a “coup against the democratic choice” of the Palestinians.

The smaller Islamic Jihad group, which also rejects the existence of Israel, said it opposed the referendum proposal.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said it was an “internal Palestinian matter.” He said Israel is following developments closely, while insisting on fulfillment of the three international demands.

Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon, who is close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the referendum idea “is worthy of examination.” But another minister, Ronnie Bar-On, said that as long as Hamas does not accept international conditions, Abbas’ idea “is like playing checkers with himself.” Olmert returned Thursday from talks in Washington with US President George W. Bush, where he explained his plan to draw Israel’s borders unilaterally if efforts to resume peace talks fail. Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas, which it considers a “terror group,” and is hesitant to talk peace with Abbas because of the Hamas control of his government.

However, if Palestinians approve a plan that accepts Israel, Israel might be forced back to the negotiating table after a five-year absence. The last peace talks were in January 2001, and they ended inconclusively.

Bush  presented   the       internationally backed “roadmap” peace plan in 2002, but it never got off the ground.

The Palestinians reject Olmert’s unilateral plan, and Abbas’ announcement Thursday appeared part of a hurried effort to show the world there is a willing Palestinian partner for negotiations with Israel.

Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher said if a referendum is held and the programme is approved, Israel would have to consider it, but it would not force Olmert’s hand.

“The burden of proof will still be on Abbas to prove that he is a viable negotiating partner for Israel” with Hamas in control of the Palestinian government, Alpher said.

Technical and political considerations could make it difficult for Abbas to push through a referendum.

Amar Duaik, director of the Palestinian election commission, said the Hamas-controlled parliament would have to pass a referendum law or Abbas would have to issue a presidential decree. “If there is no agreement [between Hamas and Fateh], I expect to have troubles and differences,” Duaik said.

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