JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas extended yesterday the deadline for the Hamas-led government to accept a plan calling for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, as Hamas faced new pressure to compromise.
Abbas had threatened to issue a presidential decree calling for a referendum on the plan, when Hamas' original deadline expired yesterday. But after meeting with other officials of his Fatah party, Abbas decided to allow more time for discussions between Fatah and the militant Islamic group Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel.
"Postponing the decision for a few days came about due to intense mediating efforts by some Arab and Islamic leaders on the President," Abbas' spokesman, Walid Awad, said in a written statement yesterday. "President Abbas cannot appear as intransigent in the face of calls for mediation."
The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Fatah and Hamas sent delegations to Yemen for talks that also would involve Yemen's president, Abdullah Salah.
It is unclear whether giving Hamas more time for discussions will soften its opposition to the proposal that would, in effect, recognize Israel by calling for an independent Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas seized by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Hamas also objects to the referendum, claiming that it would circumvent the elected government.
However, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the discussions will continue and there were parts of the proposal that Hamas would approve.
"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.
Abbas has ruled out any changes in the 18-point document drafted last month by prominent members of Fatah and Hamas who are in an Israeli prison. Their document also demands the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, continued resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and peace negotiations with Israel.
Senior Fatah officials, in their capacity as members of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, are meanwhile making preparations for a referendum. The committee approved plans yesterday for Abbas to declare the date and details of the vote within the next four days. The referendum could be held as soon as next month.
A political showdown between Hamas and Abbas has been simmering since Hamas swept to victory in parliamentary elections in January, soundly defeating Abbas' Fatah movement, which had dominated Palestinian politics for four decades.
Gunmen from Hamas and Fatah have skirmished in the streets of Gaza in recent weeks as part of a power struggle that some Palestinians fear might deteriorate into civil war.
The roots of their conflict can be traced to the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004. Arafat, who used his popularity to design a political system that allowed him to stay in office unchallenged, left a void in Palestinian politics that Hamas, controlling the Palestinian parliament, and Abbas, as president, have been looking to fill with competing visions.
Abbas wants Hamas to step back from its hard-line stance against Israel, a stance that has triggered economic sanctions cutting off the Palestinian government from millions of dollars in assistance needed to pay its workers and to keep public services running. But such a change might be difficult for Hamas, which is guided by a charter that claims land of Israel is part of an Islamic waqf, or religious bequest, that cannot be surrendered to non-Muslims.
If Abbas follows through with his threat to put the question of a two-state solution to Palestinian voters, the referendum would likely be regarded as a test for Hamas. Public opinion polls suggest there is strong support for the prisoners' proposal. A defeat would be humiliating for the Hamas government, which took office in March.
Abbas, however, believes that the referendum might offer a face-saving solution, because Hamas would feel bound to the will of the public if the referendum is approved.
"The president repeatedly stated, the referendum in itself is not the objective," Abbas' spokesman said yesterday in his statement. "The objective is to arrive at a united Palestinian position ... capable of ending the political and financial impasse the Palestinian people are currently facing, and to enable the president to go ahead with his political plan designed to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace agreement with Israel."