By by Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Bureau
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
JERUSALEM, June 6 -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas decided early Tuesday to hold a referendum to determine whether Palestinians favor creating a state on territory Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. He made his decision after talks with the rival Hamas movement failed to result in a political consensus on the question.
The move, announced in a statement issued by his office after a midnight deadline lapsed, significantly raises the political stakes for Abbas's secular Fatah party and the radical Islamic movement that defeated it in January parliamentary elections and now runs the Palestinian ministries.
But a nonbinding vote on the question would also help clarify for a divided Palestinian political leadership, Israel and the rest of the world how a majority of Palestinians envision a final peace agreement with the Jewish state.
The decision to move ahead with a referendum kicks off a campaign between the two main Palestinian factions to win support for their distinct political programs at a time when the Palestinian government is withering. International aid and Israeli-collected tax revenue, which account for more than half of the Palestinian Authority's roughly $2 billion annual budget, were both frozen after Hamas's election victory.
Rising partisan tensions have also led to frequent deadly clashes between the armed wings of Fatah and Hamas on the streets of the Gaza Strip. As the deadline approached Monday, gunmen from a newly formed Hamas security force and the main Palestinian security services dominated by Fatah fortified street-corner positions throughout the strip.
Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, warned Hamas leaders on May 25 that they should accept a two-state solution to the conflict or face a referendum on the question within 40 days. The statement issued early Tuesday said Abbas would set a date for the vote, probably in mid-July, after meeting later in the day with the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee.
Since Abbas delivered his ultimatum, talks have been underway to reach agreement on basic principles dividing Fatah and Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement. The basis of the talks and the referendum is an 18-point document signed last month by Hamas and Fatah leaders in prison, an agreement that polls show has broad public support in the Palestinian territories. The document endorses a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem
But the negotiations revealed the distance between Abbas, considered a moderate, and Hamas, which has rejected a two-state solution since its founding nearly two decades ago, over the shape of a future Palestinian state. Hamas envisions a future Palestinian state across land that now includes Israel, while Abbas favors a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem alongside Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pledged to meet with Abbas, who as head of the PLO manages peace policy, in an attempt to restart negotiations under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map." Formal negotiations between the two sides have been dormant since January 2001.
When Abbas asked Hamas to form a new Palestinian cabinet after its January election victory, he urged its leaders to accept earlier agreements backed by Fatah. But Hamas leaders refused to do so.
As president, Abbas has the authority to fire Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a member of Hamas, and disband the cabinet. But he has chosen instead to give Hamas an opportunity to govern the poor and often lawless occupied territories, betting that his rivals -- who won the election in part on a good-government platform -- will suffer politically in attempting to do so.
Recent opinion polls in the territories, however, have shown that many Palestinians blame Israel and foreign donors rather than Hamas for the economic downturn and partisan violence that have followed Hamas's victory. The Palestinian Authority has not paid its more than 150,000 employees for nearly three months, although about 40,000 employees began receiving one month's worth of back pay this week in the form of interest-free loans from local banks.
Abbas's aides said he saw the prisoners' plan, as the document has come to be known, as a way to show that Hamas is on the wrong side of a politically popular issue.
The more radical Hamas leaders in exile immediately rejected the document when it was made public this month, but opinion polls conducted since indicate that roughly 80 percent of Palestinians support it. Hamas leaders, including Haniyeh, have warned in recent days that a referendum would be illegal and only aggravate tensions between Hamas and Fatah followers that have flared in recent weeks into armed confrontation in Gaza. At least six Palestinians, including five Fatah and Hamas gunmen and a pregnant sister of one of them, have died since late Sunday night in factional fighting there.
"The approach is to treat this document as a sacred document, and that is something we don't accept," Sami Abu Zouhri, a Hamas spokesman, told reporters in Gaza on Monday. "We are against the referendum. We are not going to accept it, and we reject this referendum."