- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

TEL AVIV — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued an ultimatum to Hamas yesterday, calling on it to accept the principle of a state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or submit to a national referendum on the issue.

Speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah at a public forum aimed at reducing tensions between his Fatah party and Hamas, Mr. Abbas challenged the Islamic militants to reach an understanding within 10 days on negotiations with Israel or face a plebiscite within 40 days.

“Are slogans enough to feed the hungry? You need to stop with these slogans and deal with reality,” Mr. Abbas said in an uncharacteristically lively speech delivered off the cuff. “You need to stop with dreaming and get what is possible to get now. Let’s not talk about dreams. Let’s get a Palestinian state within the ‘67 borders.”

The surprise declaration, in which the embattled Palestinian leader gambled his little remaining political capital, comes amid escalating violence between the rival political parties that has stoked worries of a civil war.

Clashes between Fatah and Hamas gunmen have killed about 10 people in the last few weeks.

Hamas politicians went on the defensive after Mr. Abbas’ challenge. Some predicted a Fatah-Hamas agreement that would make a referendum unnecessary; others said the Islamic militants don’t oppose the idea of a national referendum as long as the two sides reach agreement on the ground rules.

“It needs some procedures,” said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman. “It needs to be inside and outside of Palestine,” meaning that the several million Palestinian refugees abroad should be permitted to vote.

Palestinian refugees in countries like Jordan and Lebanon are generally more radical than those living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Abbas wants the vote specifically to approve or disapprove a joint declaration signed recently by Hamas and Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails that backs a two-state solution.

The Palestinian president was weakened when a surprise electoral landslide put Hamas in control of the Palestinian parliament and government. Since the militants took power, Mr. Abbas has been embroiled in an escalating battle of words and bullets with Hamas.

At the same time, he has struggled to earn the respect of Israeli leaders, who called him “irrelevant” and “helpless” after the Palestinian Authority elections.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave Mr. Abbas a boost this week by inviting him to hold talks. And Israel’s Channel 2 television reported yesterday that Mr. Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz had agreed to supply Mr. Abbas’ presidential guard with badly needed weapons.

Aides to Mr. Abbas said the Palestinian president is fully aware of the risks of setting a referendum in motion. The vote could become a referendum on Mr. Abbas, who has a reputation as a wooden and aloof politician.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned that the Palestinian Authority is following two different policies even though it is supposed to function as one group. He hinted that the Palestinian president might even resign if he doesn’t win the vote.

“We know the risks, we know the difficulties,” said Mr. Erekat. “He knows the consequences of losing. If we lose, we go home.”

Mr. Erekat insisted that the Palestinian president had the authority to call a referendum, and said talks were planned with the Central Election Commission today.

The proposal of a national vote could make the Palestinians the first in the Middle East to hold a referendum.

An Israeli commentator said the Israeli government’s contention that “there is no one to talk to” on the Palestinian side came crashing down yesterday.

“Abbas proved that he is the address and there are no excuses,” said Ali Vaked, a columnist for the Israeli Web site ynet.co.il. “Abbas said to Olmert that he is the address and there are no excuses.”

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