- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

TEL AVIV — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday formally announced a July 26 referendum on negotiations with Israel, disregarding Hamas’ boycott pledge and the political fallout from the deaths of seven Gazan beachgoers killed Friday by an errant Israeli shell.

As Hamas’ military wing fired small rockets into southern Israel, signaling the end to a 16-month truce, a legislator from the Islamist militant party said Mr. Abbas would be held responsible for the “dangerous” consequences of a vote.

Speaking to reporters in Ramallah, Mr. Abbas described the referendum as an immediate necessity to settling his ongoing dispute with Hamas and restoring international financial aid.

“As chairman of the [Palestine Liberation Organization] Executive Committee and president of the Palestinian Authority, I have decided to exercise my constitutional right and duty to hold a referendum over the document of national agreement,” Reuters news agency quoted Mr. Abbas as saying in a decree read by an aide.

The manifesto, penned by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, calls for a Palestinian state, alongside Israel, on all of the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

“Every moment our situation is deteriorating. We cannot say ‘Let’s wait for God’s blessing,’ ” Mr. Abbas said. “I am convinced that once we agree on the principles of a final settlement in a referendum, the international siege on us will be lifted. … Only the people can decide on such sensitive issues that are so fateful to all of us.”

Rejecting Mr. Abbas’ announcement as a “declaration of a coup against the government,” Mushir al-Masri, a leading Hamas legislator, urged Palestinians to boycott the vote.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas later met Mr. Abbas in Gaza, saying he would “explain to him the dangers of the referendum, which could cause historical divisions among the Palestinian people.”

Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, has accused Mr. Abbas of using the manifesto to try to engineer the downfall of its government.

The referendum decree came as Palestinians buried the dead from the beach explosion that killed five members of one family and wounded more than two dozen. In retaliation, about 16 rockets and mortar rounds were fired at Israel yesterday.

“This is only the beginning,” a Hamas militant told Reuters.

Observers suggested that the escalation in violence could erode support among Palestinians for the Abbas referendum. A Palestinian survey released last week suggested that as many as three of every four respondents backed a vote on an 18-point plan for a Hamas-Fatah unity coalition that would negotiate with Israel.

Mr. Abbas “needs to show that the Palestinian people are backing him,” said Yasser Abed Raboo, an aide to the Palestinian leader. “If we lose more time, the Palestinian people will be crushed between the unilateralism of [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and the extremism of Hamas.”

Allies of Mr. Abbas from his own Fatah party described the announcement as a risky gambit that could end in his resignation. Negotiations between Fatah and Hamas will continue in the weeks leading up to the referendum, and if there is an agreement, the vote will be canceled.

Although Hamas officials spoke of boycotting the election, it is still not clear whether the Islamist militant-dominated government would cooperate with efforts to organize the vote.

“Until now they are showing they will behave in a negative way, but how negative I don’t know,” said Mr. Abed Raboo. “Their rockets were not directed against Israel. They were directed against the referendum. They wanted to threaten us that if we wanted to go on with the referendum, they will undermine the truce.”

Mr. Olmert, in an interview with the Financial Times, described the referendum as meaningless. Other pro-Israel critics say the prisoners’ agreement makes no commitment about a two-state solution with Israel.

Gaza-based political analyst Omar Shaban said that at a time of escalating violence with Israel, it is less likely Palestinians would approve a document that calls for compromise with the Israelis.

Mr. Olmert’s dismissal of the referendum also will hurt the prospects for passage, because it will stir pessimism that the vote won’t lead anywhere.

But after delaying announcement of the referendum once this week, timing is no longer a critical question for Mr. Abbas. At stake is his credibility as the Palestinian Authority president.

“Abbas can’t turn back. It’s a one-way street. He must stick to his word,” Mr. Abed Raboo said.

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