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Last Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006, 19:33 GMT 20:33 UK
Palestinians eye referendum gauntlet
By James Reynolds
BBC News, Jerusalem

For much of 2006, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has come across as a rather marginal, desultory figure.

Palestinians carry their flag near the West Bank village of Bilin
Palestinians may get a chance to say what kind of state they want

He has watched his own Fatah party lose parliamentary elections to Hamas. He has failed to persuade Israel to hold any kind of meaningful peace talks.

In short - good job title, no impact. But now, for the first time in many months, he has taken the initiative.

His threat to hold a referendum has caught Hamas off guard.

Some in the Islamic movement suggest a national vote may be a good idea. After all, Hamas is pretty good at winning Palestinian elections.

But others say it is an attempt to hijack and influence the outcome of talks among Palestinian factions.

Competing visions

If it goes ahead, the referendum will be based on a lengthy document drafted by Hamas and Fatah prisoners, who are currently being held in Israeli jails.

The document has 18 main points. In effect, it calls on the Palestinian people to accept an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That may be important.

Mahmoud Abbas
Mr Abbas is gambling on Hamas taking a pragmatic approach

For the last generation, the Palestinian cause has been defined by two competing schools of thought.

The first, championed by people like Mr Abbas, calls for the creation of a state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip living alongside the state of Israel.

The second, outlined in the Hamas charter, calls for an independent state on all of historic Palestine replacing the state of Israel.

Now for the first time - if Mr Abbas' referendum goes ahead - the Palestinian people will get to decide for themselves exactly what kind of state they really want.

Hamas influence

The Palestinian leader is gambling on one central belief: that the majority of his people are ready to accept a two-state solution.

He is betting that many of those who voted for Hamas in January's parliamentary election did so not because they wanted to destroy Israel, but rather because they wanted to fight corruption.

Poster of Ismail Haniya
Hamas PM Ismail Haniya has not ruled out a longer truce with Israel

Perhaps most importantly, Mr Abbas is betting that Hamas itself is ready to be flexible.

The Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya has suggested in a number of interviews in recent months that his movement may be prepared to accept some kind of long-term truce with Israel in return for a Palestinian state made up of Gaza and the West Bank.

If he wins, Mr Abbas will find himself with a strong democratic mandate.

The White House might even push Israel into meaningful talks with him. But there are many, many "ifs" before it gets to that.

Hamas has yet to decide exactly what to do. If the referendum goes ahead, its role in the campaign may be decisive.

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