Abbas Extends Hamas Deadline on Israel

Jun 6, 7:46 AM (ET)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave the governing Hamas party on Tuesday three more days to accept a document that implicitly recognizes Israel, threatening to bring the issue to a national referendum.

The PLO Executive Committee accepted the document, authorizing Abbas to call a referendum on it, said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official.

Abbas' deadline expired Tuesday, but he gave the militant Islamic group more time due to pressure from other officials.

On Monday, Abbas ruled out any changes in the 18-point document negotiated by Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli lockup. It accepts a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, implying recognition of Israel next to it.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri insisted that the talks must continue, saying parts of the document are positive, but Hamas has problems with other parts.

"You cannot raise the sword of ultimatum, you cannot raise the issue of a referendum while you are talking about dialogue," he told reporters in Gaza. He said calling a referendum meant circumventing the elected government.

Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Hiyah said that despite Abbas' statement, there was still time to resume the talks instead of calling a referendum.

A vote could deeply embarrass Hamas. Polls show the prisoners' document would win broad approval. Hamas won January elections in a landslide against Abbas' Fatah, but government inefficiency and corruption were the main issues, not policy toward Israel.

Hamas opposes the existence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East and has rebuffed Western demands to recognize Israel, accept previous peace accords and renounce violence. The West cut off aid to the Hamas-led government, leading to a financial crisis.

Abbas has endorsed the prisoners' plan as a way to end the crushing Western sanctions and allow him to resume peace talks with Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Monday that the document is an internal Palestinian issue, and Israel is not commenting on it, according to a statement from her office after she her European Union counterpart, Javier Solana. Israel favors talks with moderate Palestinians but rejects key elements of the plan.

The plan was formulated by politically powerful Hamas and Fatah prisoners. But the Islamic group's exiled leaders, who make final decisions on policy, have refused to accept the document.

Many Palestinians are uneasy about the referendum, though polls show the document would be approved easily. In Gaza, Mohammed Abu Seido, 30, a coffee shop cashier, said he would vote for the document, but he worried that Hamas would react with violence if it is approved. "Hamas is already failing," he said.

The Palestinians have never held a referendum before, and officials said the vote would not be binding. But passing the referendum could give Abbas an important boost in his standoff with Hamas.

"It would bolster his legitimacy and give him power to go ahead with negotiations with Israel," said Azam al-Ahmad, a top Fatah official. Al-Ahmad also said Abbas, who wields considerable powers, would consider calling elections for president and parliament if Hamas did not abide by the results of a referendum.

The dispute comes during an increasingly violent power struggle between Abbas and the Hamas-led government. Five people were wounded in two clashes between Hamas and Fatah forces Monday in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis.

Also Monday, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a car in the Jebaliya refugee camp next to Gaza city, killing two militants and wounding two bystanders, according to Palestinian hospital officials.

Israel said the main target, a militant from the renegade Popular Resistance committees, was involved in firing rockets at Israel. He died of his wounds.