RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a surprise ultimatum to his Hamas rivals on Thursday: 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.”
The Palestinian Authority has faced a number of challenges 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 captured by Israel 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.