ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is making perhaps his last, best effort to reach a deal with Hamas. He wants the group to renounce violence and recognize Israel. The deep political divisions between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah faction have turned violent recently and Abbas has challenged his rivals to agree on the parameters of a future Palestinian state or he'll bring the matter to a national vote.
Hamas leaders are skeptical and talks appear to be making little headway, as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
Perhaps Palestinian President Abbas sensed it was time to play the few cards he had left. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had just won cautious endorsement from the Bush administration on his plan to define the Jewish state's borders unilaterally, if necessary. At the same time, days of Palestinian-on-Palestinian fighting had raised the specter of civil war.
So Abbas told Hamas, whose charter pledges to destroy Israel, that it had 10 days to agree to a proposal to establish a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel on borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. If not, Abbas said, Hamas would face a national vote on the plan, outlined by a group of prominent prisoners in Israeli jails.
President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestine): (Through translator) We are running out of time and the situation is deteriorating. I will take this prisoner's document in a referendum to the people.
WESTERVELT: Abbas's move to revive long-stalled peace talks with Israel is highly risky. If Abbas wins any vote on the 67 borders plan, undermining Hamas's platform, the Islamist reaction could be explosive, especially if Abbas moves to dissolve the government. And if he loses, he'd likely have to step down, pushing the Palestinian territories into deeper disorder and potentially igniting more internal bloodshed.
Dr. Jamal Nazzal, the spokesman for Fatah, concedes Abbas's move is a gamble.
Mr. JAMAL NAZZAL (Spokesman, Fatah): The president may still remove the government. We don't know if the president will call for new elections. That's still far away to go. But the president can remove the government.
WESTERVELT: But isn't calling for new elections or dissolving the government, couldn't it be a recipe for chaos?
Mr. NAZZAL: It could. It's a very awkward situation. It's a difficult situation. There's no way out except talking and talking and talking.
WESTERVELT: And so far talks appear to be making little progress. Hamas's foreign minister today called any vote on the 67 borders plan a big waste of money and time. Hamas also complained that the talks are being held in the West Bank, not in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is strongest.
Outside the talks in Ramallah, Aziz Duaik, the speaker of the Hamas-led Palestinian parliament, tried to put a happy face on the meetings, calling them productive. But when pressed, the Hamas leader refused to elaborate.
Mr. AZIZ DUAIK (Palestinian Parliament): I like to talk, but I'm not allowed. Well, I'm not allowed. I am sorry.
WESTERVELT: Fatah sources say the party continues to try to get Hamas to unequivocally back the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole negotiating representative of the Palestinians. It's another move to try to get Hamas to at least implicitly recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Hamas's refusal to meet those international demands has led to its deep political and financial isolation. Workers in the new Hamas-led government haven't been paid in three months. But even if Hamas starts to makes concessions, which most think unlikely, the prospects for a new peace initiative are bleak.
Israel's hardly likely to accept the prisoner's plan, the document Abbas used for his 10-day ultimatum, as a basis for any new talks. The document only implicitly recognizes Israel's right to exist. It also calls for the release of prisoners and for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to land Israel took control of in 1948. That's long been a major stumbling block in past peace talks.
Hillel Frisch, who's senior researcher at Israel's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Mr. HILLEL FRISCH (Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies): Even if Abbas wins, he'll still have to cope with a Hamas government that's very intent in maintaining power. And I don't think that the tensions between the nationalists and Islamist camps are going to wither away. As long as these comparable tensions are being played out, there's going to be no movement. There won't be a peace negotiation.
WESTERVELT: Indeed, most analysts agree that for any new initiative to have a chance of gaining traction, Hamas must unambiguously end it's call for Israel's destruction.
Palestinian analyst Yad Zerag(ph) says that's a long shot. Most Hamas leaders view all the territory as God-given land that no Muslim can sell, trade or relinquish.
Mr. YAD ZERAG (Political analyst): I don't think that Hamas will ever recognize Israel as a state. Because according to their own mission, Palestine is an Islamic (unintelligible), it's a holy land that no other sovereign power should be organized there except Islamic power.
WESTERVELT: And while talks between Fatah and Hamas are ongoing, Abbas's Fatah party is also quietly preparing for the potential for more internal violence.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ramallah.