High-Stakes Political Poker: Forcing Hamas' Hand


June 6, 2006 — -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is playing high-stakes political poker.

If Hamas does not accept and agree to the contents of "The Prisoner's Document," Abbas threatens to take it to the people in a referendum.

The "Prisoner's Document" recognizes the 1967 borders and tacitly recognizes the state of Israel, which the Hamas-led Palestinian government refuses to do. It's a shrewd move by Abbas because it makes Hamas look counterproductive by rejecting the document, and appearing to reject a step toward peace.

Most importantly, Abbas' move forces Hamas to ask this question: "Will we as a government recognize the state of Israel."

A closer look reveals that is an attempt by Abbas and a small group of his Fatah supporters -- with the help of Israel, the United States, Jordan and Egypt -- to wrestle back control of the Palestinian government.

All of the secularist groups supporting this referendum by Abbas fear Islamic movements and have an interest in the collapse of Hamas.

The main author of "The Prisoner's Document," imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, is furious at Abbas for "hijacking" his paper. It was intended to be a basis for discussion, he said, not a final status document that would divide Palestinians.

A senior Hamas leader in Gaza says there is little room for negotiations.

"If Hamas recognizes this document, we slide down a slippery slope of concessions before even sitting at the negotiating table with Israel, exhausting any leverage we may have," he said.

A general complaint is the document is too general and can be interpreted in too many ways. Also, the points in the document are a nonstarter for Israel because the terms would be unacceptable to the Israeli government in any peace deal.

If the referendum goes ahead, many believe that Abbas is too weak to push it through and that he does not have the infrastructure to run a political machine. If he fails, he is finished and it is expected Fatah will collapse.

All this is terrifying because it's ratcheted up tension between Hamas and Fatah supporters in Gaza. There are 1.4 million people in Gaza with caches of weapons -- enough to cause a widespread and deadly conflict.

That battle is expected in the coming week, if not in a matter of days.

Disenfranchised Fatah supporters, many of whom feel like pawns caught up in Abbas' struggle for power, are fueling much of the anger. Fatah is seen as a collaborator with Israel and the United States because of the referendum, and it is angry at Hamas for not circumventing the devastating international boycott of aid.

The vast majority of the government salaries being withheld because of the boycott are hurting Fatah employees in Palestinian government jobs, not Hamas supporters.

If negotiations fail between Hamas and Fatah on this document by the weekend, Hamas will try and counter the referendum by either introducing its own legislation on referendums or challenging the legal validity of the referendum. If Abbas were to win, Hamas would not recognize the results.

All of this is contributing to growing tensions on the street over this issue, and it's expected to exact a heavy toll in Gaza, as forces on both sides are preparing for a fierce fight.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events