By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 26, 2006
JERUSALEM, May 25 -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Hamas on Thursday to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state on territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. If the radical Islamic movement refuses, he said, he will put the proposal to a referendum within two months.
Abbas gave leaders of Hamas, the principal political rival of his Fatah movement, 10 days to accept a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel, something the group has rejected since its founding nearly two decades ago. Hamas envisions the creation of a Palestinian state across territory that now includes Israel.
If Hamas does not change its position, Abbas said, he will measure public support for a two-state solution within 40 days through a popular referendum. Although it would not be binding, the result would help clarify for recalcitrant Hamas leaders, the Israeli government and the world what course Palestinians favor to resolve the conflict with Israel.
"We must stop with the slogans and start dealing with reality," said Abbas, Fatah's leader. "We must stop dreaming and accept what we can take now. Let us not speak of dreams. Let us take the Palestinian state on the '67 borders. There is a national consensus for this."
Abbas delivered his ultimatum during a meeting of Fatah and Hamas leaders in the West Bank city of Ramallah that was intended to reduce mounting tensions. His comments reflect frustration over Hamas's refusal to soften its views at a time of deepening economic hardship in the Palestinian territories and sporadic armed conflict between the two movements.
Hamas and Fatah gunmen exchanged fire Thursday in Gaza City following the funeral of a senior Fatah security official killed this week in a car bombing. The gunfire killed a member of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian security services and wounded several others.
When Abbas asked Hamas to form the Palestinian cabinet after its January election victory, he urged its leaders to accept agreements backed by Fatah that call for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Israel has occupied those territories since the 1967 war, although it evacuated Jewish settlements in Gaza last year.
Since Hamas took control of the Palestinian government ministries, international donors have frozen foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, and Israel has suspended the transfer of tax revenue it collects on the government's behalf. The Palestinian Authority has not paid its more than 150,000 employees for nearly three months.
Advisers and allies of Abbas said his comments Thursday were calculated to force Hamas to moderate its position, which international donors have demanded in return for a renewal of aid, or else face a vote that he expects will endorse the two-state solution. The referendum would be based on an 18-point document drafted this month by Fatah and Hamas leaders in Israeli prisons. The Hamas prison leadership is an important element of the movement's decision-making body, along with Hamas members in exile and those in the territories.
"We're escalating the tension a little bit to try to corner them and show them as rejectionists," said a political adviser to Abbas who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. "The idea is to bring Hamas back inside the national dialogue or to go to the people for a reminder of what the national consensus is."
As president, Abbas has the authority to fire Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a member of Hamas, and disband the cabinet. He has chosen instead to give Hamas an opportunity to govern the poor and often lawless occupied territories, betting that his rivals will suffer politically in the attempt.
But the economic sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority have given Hamas something to blame for any perceived political shortcomings. Israel's top general warned this week that the economic squeeze would not topple the Hamas government, citing opinion polls that show its support has not declined.
"We do not fear conducting a referendum, as we know that the Palestinian people support us and support our program," said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator from Gaza.
The prisoners' plan, as the document has come to be known, endorses a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Among other items, it also calls for the release of all Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel and reforms of the Palestinian security services and political institutions.
The more radical Hamas leaders in exile immediately rejected the document when it was made public this month. But Haniyeh and other party figures in the territories -- including Masri, who called the document "positive" -- said it could serve as a starting point for further discussion. Polls conducted since show that roughly 80 percent of Palestinians support it.
"If Hamas says democracy, democracy, democracy -- okay. The president is going back to the people," said Saeb Erekat, a Fatah member of parliament and the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel. "He could not continue to have the government defy the guidelines he gave it, and he didn't want to sack it."
Abbas's gambit could also strengthen his hand with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who told President Bush in Washington this week that he would explore the possibility of reviving peace talks before taking any unilateral steps to define the Jewish state's final borders.
Abbas, who as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization manages peace policy, has asked Olmert to restart negotiations under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map." Formal negotiations between the two sides have been moribund since January 2001.
Olmert told a joint meeting of Congress, "If there is to be a just, fair and lasting peace, we need a partner who rejects violence and who values life more than death." Some Israeli politicians said Thursday that a Palestinian vote in favor of a two-state solution along the 1967 border would increase pressure on Olmert to pursue a peace process with Abbas.