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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 June 2006, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
Abbas risks all with vote strategy
By Roger Hardy
Middle East analyst, BBC News

The power struggle between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas-led government which took office in March seems to be entering a new phase.

The president is threatening to call a referendum unless Hamas accepts a political initiative which would implicitly recognise Israel.

Hamas officials say the initiative - produced by Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli jail - is worthy of study, but they reject the referendum as illegal.

Supporters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a rally in support of Abbas' call for a referendum in Ramallah
Palestinians may soon have to vote on the way ahead

Mr Abbas is engaged in a risky game of brinkmanship with the Hamas-led government.

When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January, trouncing its rival Fatah, Mr Abbas was at first conciliatory.

While urging Hamas to soften its hard line towards Israel, he indicated he was ready to work with it rather than against it.

But since then, the president has challenged Hamas's authority in a number of key areas - including control of security.

And, heightening tensions, more than a dozen people have died in clashes between Hamas and Fatah militiamen.

Prisoners' proposal

Then, in May, Mr Abbas significantly raised the stakes.

He gave Hamas 10 days to accept what has become known as the "prisoners' document".

Palestinian views on a possible referendum on two states

This is a proposal produced by prisoners in an Israeli jail - including prominent members of Hamas and Fatah.

The 18-point plan implicitly recognises Israel.

It urges Palestinians to unite in seeking an independent state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

That implies recognition, or at least acceptance, of Israel if it withdraws to its 1967 borders.

The document endorses the continuation of the armed struggle, but would limit it to the occupied West Bank, implicitly ruling out attacks in Israel itself.

Vote of confidence

The signs are that most Palestinians would accept the plan.

And, in their eyes, the fact that it was drawn up by prisoners enhances its credibility.

But if the referendum goes ahead, they will, in effect, be asked to choose between their president and their government.

President Abbas is seeking to use the prisoners' plan to strengthen his hand in his power struggle with the Hamas-led government.

In other words, he wants to turn the referendum into a vote of confidence in himself - and a vote of no-confidence in Hamas.

The referendum would be non-binding, but the president clearly believes it would enhance his authority in his stand-off with the government.

How will Hamas respond if the referendum goes ahead?

Rather than rejecting the prisoners' proposal, it may call on its supporters to boycott the referendum.

But there is a danger that the violence on the streets will continue.

Many people fear that if the president forces the pace, the power struggle could turn even uglier.


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