In a surprise ultimatum, Palestin-ian President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday he will call a national referendum on accepting a Palestinian state alongside Israel if Hamas does not agree to the idea within 10 days.
The referendum represents a political gamble that could either help resolve the Palestinians' internal deadlock or lead them deeper into crisis.
Hamas appeared to be divided over the idea of a referendum, with several officials giving their blessing, but others dismissing it as an attempt to undercut the Hamas-led government.
A referendum, which Palestinian pollsters expect to pass, could provide cover for the militants to 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 imposing borders on the Palestinians.
Abbas' proposal came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned from a trip to Washington, where he presented US President George W. Bush with a West Bank pullout plan. Olmert has said that if there is no breakthrough in long-stalled peace efforts in the coming months, Israel would withdraw from much of the West Bank, solidify its control of large settlement blocs and unilaterally draw its border with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians reject Olmert's unilateral plan, and Abbas' announcement yesterday appeared part of a hurried effort to show the world there is a willing Palestinian partner for negotiations with Israel.
Abbas made the announcement at the opening of a so-called "national dialogue" between Palestinian parties, including Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement. Abbas said that if 10 days of talks don't lead to a joint political platform, he would call a referendum in a further 40 days.
Abbas, usually a restrained speaker, spoke off-the-cuff and with uncommon enthusiasm, repeatedly gesturing as he implored the gathered leaders to work together.
The referendum would ask Palestinians to either accept or reject a document that had been drafted earlier this month by senior Palestinian militants jailed in Israel. The five-page document calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
The draft was negotiated by leading prisoners from Hamas and Fatah over the period of four weeks at Israel's Hadarim Prison, where top Fatah prisoner Marwan Barghouti is being held.
The talks took place in a wing for Palestinian security prisoners, where 120 inmates are held, said Barghouti's lawyer, Khader Shkirat. After the factions' political leaders gave their blessing, Barghouti drafted an outline that was revised in the negotiations, Shkirat said. Many of the sessions took place in the prison yard.
Hamas is pledged to Israel's destruction and has rejected international demands that it recognize the Jewish state or renounce violence. The group appeared to soften its position since taking power in March, but has refused to explicitly give up its demands for an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, which includes Israel.
It was not clear whether Abbas had briefed Hamas before the announcement on the referendum. Some Hamas officials said they had been taken by surprise, but said they support the idea.
"Returning to the people is one of the most important principles in democracy," said Parliament Speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik, of Hamas, who added that the prisoners' document was a good basis for dialogue.