Monday, June 05, 2006

Abbas to Call Referendum

Excerpts from an analysis by Haaretz's Danni Rubinstein (Italics), followed by a shortened version of the AP article:

Both sides - Fatah, under Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas; and Hamas, under Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh - appeared entrenched in their positions Monday night, and not willing to budge an inch. Nevertheless, most Palestinian analysts said there was still room for talks to find a way out of the thicket.

The expiration of Abbas' ultimatum does not mean an end to the dialogue between the two. They can continue their efforts to twist the arms of one another during the 40 days that Abbas has allocated for preparing a referendum. In other words, they have more than a month to continue arguing, and perhaps reach a last-minute compromise.

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Monday he will call a referendum on a plan implicitly recognizing Israel after he failed to persuade Hamas to agree to the idea.

The Islamic militant Hamas, which heads the Palestinian government, strongly opposes a referendum.

"President Abbas will set a date for the referendum after the meeting Tuesday of the PLO Executive Committee and parliamentary caucuses," his office said in a statement.

Abbas had set a midnight deadline for agreement. But a participant in late-night talks with Palestinian factions said the president determined they had failed an hour before that.

The Hamas-led government is facing international isolation over its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel. The United States, European Union and Israel have cut off cash transfers to the Palestinian government since Hamas won legislative elections earlier this year.

Its hardline stance has landed it in an increasingly violent power struggle with Abbas and his Fatah party, the other main Palestinian faction. Since Hamas was sworn into office in March, Abbas has taken steps to curb its authorities.

The plan under discussion was formulated by Hamas and Fatah prisoners held in Israeli jails. But Hamas' exiled leaders, who make final decisions on policy, have refused to accept the proposal.

Abbas has endorsed the plan as a way to end the crushing sanctions against the Palestinians and allow him to resume peace talks with Israel.

Hamas reacted angrily to Abbas' threats Monday.

"You cannot raise the sword of ultimatum, you cannot raise the issue of a referendum while you are talking about dialogue," he told reporters in Gaza. He said calling a referendum meant circumventing the elected government, led by Hamas.

Many Palestinians are uneasy about the referendum, though polls show the document would be approved easily.

In Gaza, Mohammed Abu Seido, 30, a coffee shop cashier, said he would vote for the document, but he worried that Hamas would react with violence if it is approved.

"Hamas is already failing," he said.

The Palestinians have never held a referendum before, and officials said the vote would not be binding. But passing the referendum could give Abbas an important boost in his standoff with Hamas.

"It would bolster his legitimacy and give him power to go ahead with negotiations with Israel," said Azam al-Ahmad, a top Fatah official. Al-Ahmad also said Abbas, who wields considerable powers, would consider calling elections for president and parliament if Hamas did not abide by the results of a referendum.

Hamas says that accepting the plan would mean abandoning its principles. It also says a referendum is not necessary because Palestinian voters chose its political program in legislative elections just over four months ago.

The Palestinian infighting has turned deadly in recent weeks. Sixteen people have died in clashes between Hamas and Fatah loyalists, including five killed on Sunday. Five Palestinians were wounded in two clashes in the southern city of Khan Younis on Monday, security officials said.

Hamas has stuck to its tough line on Israel despite the crushing international boycott, which has left the government unable to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of civil servants for three months.

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