Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday he will call a national referendum on accepting a Palestinian state alongside Israel if Hamas does not agree to the idea within 10 days.
Abbas' surprise announcement was a political gamble that could either help resolve the Palestinians' internal deadlock or lead them into a deeper crisis with the militant Hamas group.
Such a vote would effectively ask Palestinians to give implicit recognition to Israel by accepting a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in 1967. Approval of the 18-point plan would provide a way out of the impasse over acceptance of Israel, which has led to an international freeze on aid to the Hamas-led government.
"A referendum could allow Hamas to moderate its position without appearing that it caved in to international pressure," CBS News correspondent Robert Berger reports. "At the same time, Hamas would not have to directly recognize Israel, but could just say that it accepts the referendum."
Hamas officials were divided over the idea of a referendum, with several giving their blessing, but others dismissing it as an attempt to undercut the Hamas-led government.
A referendum, which Palestinian pollsters expect to pass, could provide cover for the militants to moderate without appearing to succumb to Western pressure. Such a vote could also renew pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table rather than imposing borders on the Palestinians.
Abbas' proposal came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned from a trip to Washington, where he presented President Bush with a West Bank pullout plan. Olmert said if there is no breakthrough in long-stalled peace efforts in the coming months, Israel would withdraw from much of the West Bank, solidify its control of large settlement blocs and unilaterally draw its border with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians reject Olmert's unilateral plan, and Abbas' announcement Thursday appeared part of a hurried effort to show the world there is a willing Palestinian partner for negotiations with Israel. The proposed Palestinian state would be created in all the territories captured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, including the West Bank, Gaza and the sacred Old City of Jerusalem, Berger reports. That is unacceptable to Israel, Berger adds.
In other developments:
Gunfight between a Palestinian security force and a Hamas militia Thursday killed one police officer dead and wounded four others in the latest outbreak of internal Palestinian fighting, doctors and witnesses said. At least 10 people have been killed in internal violence over the past month.
Israel will enlarge Jewish settlement enclaves in the West Bank city of Hebron and include them within the country's final borders, an ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday.It was the first time a government official has said Israel intends on retaining the volatile area, located well inside the West Bank, under Olmert's plan to unilaterally set Israel's final borders by 2008.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will visit London and Paris to meet British and French leaders, a government official said Thursday. Olmert will visit the two European capitals from June 11-15, Asaf Shariv, Olmert's spokesman said.
Malaysia's main Islamic opposition group said Thursday it has raised nearly $850,000 in public donations for the cash-strapped Hamas-led Palestinian government. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party collected the money over the past two weeks from people in mosques, shopping malls and markets across the mostly Muslim Southeast Asian country, said senior party official Syed Azman Syed Ahmad.
A Gaza security chief loyal to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas was killed when his car blew up Wednesday, the second attack on security commanders in the volatile area in less than a week. It was not immediately clear who planted the bomb. The attack came during an increasingly bloody power struggle between the Hamas government and Abbas.
Masked gunmen kidnapped three Hamas militants outside a Gaza mosque, shot them and dumped them with stomach and leg wounds at a gas station, reports Berger. One of them died. Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Authority, blamed the rival Fatah movement. The factional fighting is growing more bloody, and has raised fears of civil war.
Abbas said that if 10 days of dialogue between Hamas and his Fatah movement did not lead to a joint political platform, he would call a referendum 40 days after that. The dialogue began Thursday.
The referendum would ask Palestinians to either accept or reject a document that had been drafted earlier this month by senior Palestinian militants jailed in Israel. The five-page document calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
The draft was negotiated by leading prisoners from Hamas and Fatah over the period of four weeks at Israel's Hadarim Prison, where top Fatah prisoner Marwan Barghouti is being held.