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Abbas challenges Hamas to accept statehood plan

Says if militants refuse, he'll hold a referendum

JERUSALEM -- Laying down a challenge to Hamas, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that he will call a popular referendum on a plan to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel if the militant group and other factions do not agree to the proposal within 10 days.

The surprise announcement came at the start of a conference of Palestinian factions intended to arrive at a joint platform and resolve disputes that have led to a growing power struggle in the Palestinian Authority.

``You have 10 days to finish," said Abbas, addressing delegates in the West Bank city of Ramallah. ``If you don't finish, it means, frankly, that we are all irresponsible. Within 40 days I will call for a referendum. . . . The people will have their say."

The remarks were transmitted by video conference to participants in Gaza City. Israel bars Hamas members from traveling between the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Abbas referred to a document drafted this month by prominent Palestinian prisoners from his Fatah party, Hamas, and other factions in an effort to resolve differences between the groups. The draft calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem, and says that Abbas should conduct negotiations with the Israelis.

The proposal calls for the release of all Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis and affirms a right of ``resistance" to Israeli occupation in territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

The driving force behind the document was Marwan Barghouthi, a Fatah leader jailed by Israel, but it also was signed by prisoners from Hamas and other factions.

Hamas leaders have said they would agree to a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, released prisoners, and allowed the refugees to return, but they have rejected a permanent peace settlement with Israel.

Despite the victory of Hamas in parliamentary elections in January, opinion polls have consistently indicated that most Palestinians support a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel. By raising the possibility of a referendum, Abbas appeared to be moving to outflank Hamas by going directly to the Palestinian public to endorse his vision of a negotiated peace.

Yet even if the prisoners' document is endorsed by Hamas, its terms remain widely divergent from positions taken by the Israelis.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, who returned yesterday from a visit to Washington, has said he intends to keep large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank and maintain control of East Jerusalem as an indivisible part of Israel's capital.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the referendum proposal yesterday.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, said the idea of such a referendum would be studied on the basis of ``how much it conforms to the law as well as its political ramifications."

Other Hamas officials said they do not object to a referendum in principle.

``Returning to the people is one of the most important principles in democracy," said parliament speaker Aziz Dweik, adding that the prisoners' document is a good basis for dialogue.

However, Mushir al-Masri, another Hamas lawmaker, called the referendum a ``coup against the democratic choice" of the Palestinians in the elections.

Abbas urged delegates to move quickly to forge a common position. ``We don't have time," he said. ``Our whole future is at stake."

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