Thursday, May 25, 2006

Abbas rolls the dice

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has given Hamas a choice: accept the idea of co-existence with Israel within 10 days, or he'll call a referendum to settle the issue.

Abbas asked Hamas to endorse a document drawn up by senior Palestinian militants imprisoned in Israel. It accepts statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.

Approving the document would imply recognition of Israel — one of the three conditions imposed by Israel and the West for doing business with the Hamas-led government. The document falls short of meeting the other two conditions — renouncing violence and accepting past peace accords — so it was unclear if the international boycott would be called off even if Hamas acquiesced.

However, a referendum, which Palestinian pollsters expect to pass, could provide cover for the militants to become more 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 impose borders on the Palestinians.

It's a bold move, akin to cutting the Gordian Knot. And the fact that such a plan would likely be approved by voters demonstrates that Hamas does not represent the average Palestinian on this fundamental point.

Worth a try, anyway. Along with Israel's plan to draw unilateral borders, the move puts increasing pressure on Hamas to compromise or be marginalized.

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