by RAY FLEMING
DEADLINES are made of elastic in the world of Middle East politics. This was demonstrated yet again yesterday when the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, extended the time he had given to the Hamas government to respond to his proposal for a referendum on whether the negotiations should be opened with Israeli for a two-state settlement of their long-running dispute. If Hamas were to agree with Mr Abbas' proposal it would in effect mean that it was willing to recognise the Israeli state, something it has refused to do since it was elected to form a government in January. President Abbas has extended the deadline he first set for Hamas' response by “two or three days” and said that if he does not get a favourable response he will announce the date for the referendum towards the end of this week. The reality, however, is that much of this is shadow boxing. The conditions that the Palestinians would take to the negotiating table, for instance for a return to the 1967 borders and the return of refugees, are known to be almost wholly unacceptable to the Israelis. The only immediate effect of Hamas's agreement to put the issue to the Palestinian people in a referendum would be its implicit recognition of the state of Israel and, perhaps therefore, an end of the current disgraceful Western and Israeli economic blockade of the Palestinian Authority. However that relaxation cannot be taken for granted and Hamas must know that.

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