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Abbas’ Bold Gamble

Prepared by: Esther Pan
May 25, 2006

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If the Hamas government does not accept a document that implicitly recognizes Israel within ten days, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he will call a referendum and ask the Palestinian people to vote on the proposal (AP). The move is a bold effort to force Hamas leaders to recognize Israel; their refusal to do so or to renounce violence since winning power in the Palestinian Authority (PA) elections in January prompted a cutoff of international aid that threatens the PA with financial strangulation. That, in turn, is causing massive internal unrest. Abbas is betting the referendum will pass, ratcheting up pressure on Hamas to agree to the terms. A recent poll shows most Palestinians favor negotiating with Israel (CSMonitor). CFR fellow Steven Cook tells Bernard Gwertzman in an interview that Abba's move is a "shrewd" one that puts pressure on Hamas while placing constraints on Israel's actions.

The proposal being put to voters is a five-page draft negotiated in prison by prominent jailed leaders of both Fatah and Hamas. Marwan Barghouti, perhaps the most popular Palestinian leader, was instrumental in its creation (Haaretz). It calls for a Palestinian state to exist next to Israel in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem, including on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day war. It calls for a Palestinian unity government, states that Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, and allows for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if Israel withdraws to the so-called 1967 borders. "All the Palestinians...agree we want a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders," Abbas said Thursday. The idea has support in the Arab world: a similar proposal, known as the Arab Peace Initiative, called for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders and accept returning Palestinian refugees. It was put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and endorsed by the Arab League, which offered to recognize Israel and declare a comprehensive peace with Jerusalem if Israel agreed to the terms.

Abbas made his proposal at a two-day gathering of Palestinian leaders in Ramallah (al-Jazeera). The meeting is intended to establish national unity and calm the rising tensions between militias loyal to Hamas and Fatah, which have held gunfights in the streets of Gaza. More than a dozen people, including several senior officials close to Abbas, have been wounded or killed in factional violence during the last week (Daily Star).

At the same time, Abbas is desperate to head off further unilateral action by Israel, whose Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won qualified acceptance for a "consolidation" plan from President Bush this week. Many Arabs fear the Olmert plan will allow Israel to impose final national borders without consulting the Palestinians.

If Hamas will not relent, Abbas says he will call the referendum within forty days (JPost). Some Hamas supporters portray the move as an attempt to overthrow the Hamas government. But such a strategy has its risks: Palestinian scholar Mohammad Yaghi writes that if the Hamas government fails, the alternative is most likely not a return to Fatah rule, but Somalia-style anarchy.

Nadia Hijab and Schmuel Rosner discuss whether to isolate or engage the Hamas government in this CFR Online Debate. And a Washington Institute for Near East Policy brief assesses the impact of the Hamas victory on the PA's economy and security.

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