Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a surprise ultimatum to his Hamas rivals yesterday: Break the political stalemate imperiling the Palestinian government within 10 days or he'll ask voters to approve a measure that would implicitly recognize Israel.
Hamas officials appeared caught off-guard by Abbas' threat to hold a referendum in July. Some leaders voiced optimism that they would be able to work out their differences, while others criticized Abbas for trying to bully them.
A referendum accepting the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would put the issue directly before Palestinian voters for the first time -- and the outcome would be uncertain. While polls have shown broad support among Palestinians for a two-state solution, voters also dumped Abbas' long-dominant Fatah party in favor of the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas in part because of frustration over compromises that Fatah had made in peace talks with Israel.
Speaking at the start of a unity conference, Abbas put Hamas leaders on notice that he's running out of patience with a power struggle that in recent weeks has broken out into confrontations between rival gunmen in Gaza streets.
"Our cause is at stake," Abbas said, in demanding a quick response from Hamas. "We cannot afford the luxury of time."
"There is no need for such threats from the president," said Hamas lawmaker Abdel Jaber Fuqaha. "Let the dialogue take its normal course."
The Palestinian Authority has faced a number of challenges ever since January, when voters catapulted Hamas, a movement formally committed to Israel's destruction, into power over Fatah, which accepts Israel's right to exist.
The United States and Europe have cut off aid, and Israel has been withholding tax receipts it collects on the Palestinians' behalf, creating a financial crisis.
In recent weeks, the factional feud has erupted into near-daily clashes in the Gaza Strip between Hamas militants and Abbas loyalists that have left at least 10 people dead. The latest battle, which left one Palestinian security officer dead, broke out shortly after the unity conference began.
This week's conference was partly a response to a joint political statement issued earlier this month by a group of Palestinian leaders in an Israeli prison. Top Hamas and Fatah members signed the letter, along with leaders of smaller political factions.
The 18-point document calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the land [won] by Israel [after being attacked] in the 1967 Six Day War. It also suggests that Palestinians stop attacking targets in Israel and restrict their actions to targets in the West Bank.
But Hamas' embrace of the document might not go very far toward easing the international pressure on the Palestinian Authority.
The proposal falls short of meeting two critical demands: Explicitly recognizing Israel's right to exist and abandoning violence as a political weapon. And Israel has made it clear that it intends to hold onto major Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But formal acceptance by Hamas of a Palestinian state in the West Bank could put more pressure on Israel to seek a negotiated settlement instead of pressing ahead with a new plan to ignore the Palestinian leadership and dictate its own borders.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's unilateral proposal got a boost this week during his first official visit to Washington when President Bush praised the idea as a "bold" concept that could lead to peace.
But Bush encouraged Olmert not to move forward with the idea until he tries to reach an agreement with Abbas. But the Israeli prime minister is dubious of working out any deal with Abbas when the government is dominated by Hamas leaders.
Before Abbas issued his vow to put the issue before voters, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh urged the conference to work together to end the internal violence.
"The space of consensus between us is much closer than we imagine," said Haniyeh, who spoke via video link from a simultaneous gathering held in Gaza City for Hamas members who, like the prime minister, are barred by Israel from traveling to the West Bank.