Abbas will call for Palestinian vote on two-state plan

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 06-Jun-06 | Author: Steven Erlanger and Greg Myre| Source: International Herald Tribune

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (L) attends a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah June 5, 2006.
JERUSALEM The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, intends to call a referendum on a proposal developed by prisoners for a unified Palestinian political program that the governing Hamas faction opposes.

Talks on the proposal ended without agreement late Monday night, and early Tuesday morning Abbas's office said in a statement that he intended to live up to his ultimatum to Hamas, the militant Islamic faction that heads the government, and announce a referendum later on Tuesday after meeting with the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"In light of recent contacts, President Abbas will decide the date of the referendum after a meeting of the P.L.O. executive committee," the statement said.

The referendum is expected to be called for July and will be seen as a vote of confidence in Hamas, which won legislative elections in late January but has been isolated internationally and financially because of its refusal to recognize the right of Israel to exist, to forswear violence and to accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The vote, if it takes place, will be a kind of showdown between Hamas and Abbas, who has insisted from the beginning of Hamas's rule that it accept the idea of a negotiated two-state solution, with an independent Palestine living in peace alongside Israel.

There is no precedent for a referendum among the Palestinians, and it is not clear that Abbas has the power to call one. Nor is it clear what would happen if the Palestinian parliament, where Hamas holds a majority, votes against a referendum or decides on wording different from that which Abbas might favor.

Hamas has rejected portions of the prisoners' document, which implicitly recognizes Israel by calling for a Palestinian state within the boundaries that existed before the 1967 Middle East war.

Khalida Jarar, a delegate from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told reporters after factions held talks with Abbas in Ramallah late on Monday that Abbas felt he had no option but to call the referendum.

Jarar said Abbas also had a 70-minute phone conversation with Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, of Hamas, about the proposal, which she said also ended without agreement.

"The document has to be accepted as it is," Abbas said at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah after talks with the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, on Monday. "If we begin to change it, we will never reach a result."

Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas government, said Monday that Hamas opposed a referendum, but believed a compromise could be worked out.

"I think there is an opportunity for us to reach an understanding on the prisoners' document," Hamad told Israel radio. "But if we hold a referendum, there will be a lot of problems, I think."

Abbas said on May 25 that he would hold a referendum within two months if Hamas did not accept the prisoners' plan within 10 days, a period that ended Sunday.

The prisoners' plan is in line with positions held by Fatah, and recent opinion polls show that a large majority of Palestinians support it.

Hamas has never recognized Israel and does not accept its existence on any territory in the region, contending that all the land belongs to Muslims.

The prisoners' document calls for negotiations based on the United Nations resolutions and other international proposals that call for two states existing side by side.

The political confrontation comes as violence continued both among Palestinians and between Israel and the Palestinians.

Five Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip overnight Sunday in internal Palestinian clashes.

The dead included a member of Hamas's military wing, who was killed when a large bomb went off near his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp, outside Gaza City. In southern Gaza, a pregnant woman and her brother were shot dead, Palestinian security officials said.

A Palestinian described by witnesses as a militant was killed and four people were wounded in a missile strike on a car in northern Gaza on Monday. The Israeli Army confirmed that it had carried out the strike.

During the day, Hamas gunmen stormed into a Palestinian television broadcasting center and smashed computers and other equipment in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis, employees said. But Hamas officials denied the group was involved. The gunmen said Palestinian television supported Fatah at the expense of Hamas, the employees said. No injuries were reported.

Marwan Barghouti, a hugely popular Fatah leader, was the driving force behind the plan supported by Abbas, though prisoners from other groups, including Hamas, also signed it. Barghouti was convicted in 2004 of orchestrating the killings of five people, and is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison.

Barghouti and other Palestinian prisoners are seen as heroes by many Palestinians, and their opinions carry substantial weight.

The plan contains a number of provisions that Israel adamantly opposes. It says Palestinian refugees dating from the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war must be allowed to return to their homes in what is now Israel. The plan also calls for Palestinian "resistance" in areas occupied by Israel, which effectively means the West Bank.

But Israel in response continues to insist that the way forward is through the stalled internationally backed Middle East peace plan, known as the road map, which calls on the Palestinian leadership to dismantle armed factions.

In general, though, Israeli officials have sought to distance themselves from the Palestinian debate over the prisoners' plan.

"Any move that occurs in the Palestinian Authority will be evaluated carefully, but this is an internal Palestinian process and it's preferable for Israel not to interfere," said Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, said Monday.

In another development, some Palestinian Authority workers were able to withdraw salaries from their banks on Monday for the first time in three months. The government has not been able to meet its payroll since Western governments cut off aid when Hamas took over the government.