Abbas delays referendum over two-state proposal

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The Independent Online

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, has extended his deadline for calling a referendum by giving Hamas until the end of the week to sign up to a document aspiring to a two-state solution of the conflict with Israel.

The last-minute postponement of the deadline came after what Mr Abbas's office said had been "intense mediating efforts by some Arab and Islamic leaders" on Mr Abbas. A statement added: "President Abbas cannot appear as intransigent in the face of calls for mediation."

Mr Abbas's deferral of the decree authorising a referendum - which Hamas has said it strongly opposes - was a short-term concession to his internal opponents. But he appeared to be still determined to go ahead with the referendum if Hamas failed to agree a two-state document drawn up by Fatah and Hamas prisoners in Israel's Hadarim prison.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, an ally of Mr Abbas who has been one of the most ardent backers of the referendum proposal, said after emerging from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Ramallah: "We, of the PLO executive committee, have approved his move and therefore Hamas has until the end of the week to change its position and accept the ... document."

The move averted for the next few days a political confrontation which some Abbas allies say they fear could seriously intensify inter-factional violence between Hamas and the Fatah, the faction it defeated in January's elections.

The statement from Mr Abbas's office stressed that if the "internal dialogue" between the factions on the document proposing a two-state solution tied to the pre-occupation 1967 borders produced agreement either before or after the referendum was officially called, the plebiscite would be called off.

But it repeated that Mr Abbas's objective remained to achieve a "united Palestinian position capable of ending the political and financial impasse the Palestinian people are currently facing". Mr Abbas is hoping that Hamas agreement to the document or a vote for it in a Palestinian referendum will ease the crippling economic and social impact of the Israeli and international funding boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

But his allies are also arguing strongly in internal discussions that the document - with its implied, if not explicit recognition of Israel - affords the Palestinian leadership its last chance of averting the unilateral fixing of Israel's borders according to the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "realignment" plan.

Mr Abed Rabbo said earlier this week that under the Olmert plan "we will have Gaza isolated from the West Bank and the West Bank will be divided into cantons, north south and central. The roads and bridges will be controlled by Israel. The Palestinians will have no external borders. It will be a disaster for Palestinians."

Deliberately invoking the 1948 nakba or catastrophe in which some 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes during the 1948 war of independence a year after Arab leaders rejected partition of Palestine, Mr Abed Rabbo said that unless Palestinians united behind a two-state solution: "We could be about to see the last chapter of the nakba."

He added: "We are trying to show the great people of the [Palestinian] government that there is a world around us."

Mr Abbas and his allies are hoping that international opinion will start exerting pressure on Israel to begin substantive negotiations with the Palestinian President if the referendum provides him with a renewed mandate to negotiate with Mr Olmert on a two-state solution.

But the idea that the strategy would lead to Israeli concessions was rejected by the Hamas speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abdel Aziz Dweik, who said this week that the PLO "didn't get anything" in return for recognising Israel. He added: "Why should we recognise Israel again? What are they intending to give us? We know Israel has no intention of going back to the 1967 borders." Mr Dweik claimed: "The referendum idea originated in the United States. The US said that this government must collapse within three months. They wanted to show a semi-democratic means to collapse the government because people didn't rise up against the government and supported it with money and endurance."

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