Abbas expected to call plebiscite


JERUSALEM -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to announce tomorrow that he will use his power of presidential decree to hold a national referendum on the question of establishing a Palestinian state beside Israel, according to Palestinian officials.

The decree would follow 10 days of apparently fruitless talks between members of Abbas' Fatah movement and the Hamas-led Palestinian government over whether Hamas would endorse a document written by Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners that implicitly recognizes Israel.

Since taking office in March, Hamas has found itself isolated because of its refusal to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, a stand that has cut off the Palestinian Authority from desperately needed international aid. Last month, Abbas gave Hamas 10 days to agree to the document drafted by Hamas and Fatah prisoners, but if Hamas refused, he promised to put the issue to the Palestinian public in a referendum.

When that deadline was reached last night, Hamas still refused to alter its stance.

Azam al-Ahmad, a Fatah official participating in the negotiations, said Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, would probably be left with no other option than to hold the referendum.

"Abu Mazen will resort to a referendum by Tuesday morning if he does not receive anything positive from Hamas on the prisoners' document," he told reporters yesterday, according to reports by the Israeli news media.

"The ultimatum given to Hamas expires Tuesday morning," the Israeli media quoted Yasser Abed Rabbo as saying; the Fatah member is representing Abbas in the talks.

Hamas remains divided over the proposal, with different officials offering conflicting opinions in recent days, although Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Palestinian Authority government, said yesterday that he rejected the deadline, claiming it was illegal.

"The local basic law and the advice which we got from experts in international law say that referendums are not permitted on the Palestinian land," Haniyeh said.

Haniyeh, however, said he would continue to speak with Abbas, who extended his deadline until tomorrow.

The 18-point prisoners' agreement calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It also calls for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, the release of all Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, continued resistance of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank but also peace negotiations with Israel.

Negotiated in an Israeli prison, the agreement is the work of some of the most prominent imprisoned members of Fatah and Hamas, including Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader and the document's primary author. He is serving a life sentence for his role in the killings of five people during the Palestinian uprising.

If Abbas calls for a referendum, the measure would likely be approved by a significant majority of Palestinian voters, according to the most recent public opinion polls. Abbas believes such a result would pressure Hamas to acknowledge the will of the public and soften the militant Islamic group's tough stance against Israel, allowing aid to flow again and peace talks to restart.

Economic sanctions have crippled the Palestinian government, leaving it unable to pay salaries to more than 150,000 workers for more than three months. Families are borrowing money, rationing supplies and making other sacrifices to get by.

Last night, however, some Palestinian workers received relief when the government announced it would deposit about 1,500 shekels, or about $330, into the bank accounts of the 40,000 lowest-paid workers. The remaining employees were told they would need to wait.

Israel, which has declined to comment on the prisoners' proposal, is likely to find some of the document's points, such as refugees' right of return and continued resistance, unacceptable.

Still, a Palestinian referendum that recognized Israel would pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to begin peace talks, disrupting his government's plans to evacuate tens of thousand of settlers from the West Bank and define Israeli's borders unilaterally.

During a news conference yesterday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Olmert said he would meet Abbas to urge the Palestinians to resume negotiations using the internationally backed peace plan known as the "road map."

There was no date set for the meeting with Abbas, which would be the first summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since February 2005.

"I really hope that our Palestinian partners will take advantage of this opportunity and will implement all their commitments so that it will be possible to proceed according to the road map," Olmert said.

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