In a bold initiative, the Palestinian president gave Hamas 10 days to accept the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying Thursday he’ll submit the plan to a referendum by mid-July if the Islamic militants refuse.
Mahmoud Abbas’ surprise announcement is a political gamble that could either help resolve the Palestinians’ internal deadlock or lead the Hamas-led government and Fatah into a deeper crisis.
Abbas asked Hamas to endorse a document drawn up by senior Palestinian militants imprisoned in Israel. It accepts statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East 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-led 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 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 impose borders on the Palestinians.
As Abbas outline his proposal, violence again erupted in Gaza.
Violence rages in Gaza City
A group of policemen on their way back from the funeral of a top security commander in Gaza City clashed with a newly formed Hamas militia, and one of the officers was wounded, security officials said.
At nightfall, three officers in the presidential guard were shot and wounded on patrol in Gaza City, officials said. They said the gunfire came from the direction of a Hamas militia unit. In the past week, 10 people have been killed in clashes between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah Party.
Fatah and Hamas leaders held talks in Ramallah and Gaza to defuse the crisis, and Abbas used the opportunity to challenge Hamas to adopt a program 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. The Islamic militants won parliamentary elections in January, and took over the Palestinian Authority on Feb. 18. Abbas was elected separately a year earlier.
The plan was conceived in a wing for 120 Palestinian security prisoners at Hadarim prison, with many sessions taking place in the prison yard, said Khader Shkirat, a lawyer for a key signer, Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. An inmate from Hamas also signed the document.
Hamas ideology does not accept a Jewish state in the Middle East, and Hamas does not accept interim peace accords with a state it does not recognize. 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 he has the authority to conduct peace negotiations with Israel.
Hamas defies ban
Hamas fielded its own 3,000-strong militia in Gaza in defiance of Abbas’ ban, setting off clashes with Fatah-dominated security forces.
Abbas brought things to a head Thursday, giving Hamas 10 days to achieve a political accord with him or face a referendum within 40 days.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was noncommittal, saying: “We will study how the call for a referendum is compatible with the law, the constitution and politics.”
Other Hamas figures were divided over the idea.
Parliament Speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik of Hamas said the prisoners’ document was a good basis for dialogue, adding: “Returning to the people is one of the most important principles in democracy.”
But Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri called the proposal a “coup against the democratic choice” of the Palestinians.
The Islamic Jihad group, which also rejects the existence of Israel, opposed the plan. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev called the issue an “internal Palestinian matter,” and reiterated that Israel insists on fulfillment of all three international conditions.
Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon, who is close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the referendum was “worthy of examination.” But another Israeli minister, Ronnie Bar-On, said that as long as Hamas does not accept international conditions, Abbas’ idea “is like playing checkers with himself.”
State Department offers support
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: “The only way you can test the proposition is for the Palestinians to go through that process, whether it’s a referendum or whether it’s through national dialogue or through some other peaceful means, to talk about what the future of the Palestinian people will be.”
Olmert returned Thursday from talks in Washington with President 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 Hamas controls the government.
However, if Palestinians approve a plan that accepts Israel, Israel might be forced back to the negotiating table.
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 program is approved, Israel would have to consider it.
“The burden of proof will still be on Abbas to prove that he is a viable negotiating partner,” Alpher said.