In a dramatic announcement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday 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 ultimatum to Hamas represented a political gamble that could either help resolve the Palestinians' internal deadlock or lead them into a deeper crisis. Senior Hamas officials said they accept the idea of a referendum.
Abbas said that if 10 days of dialogue between Hamas and his Fatah movement — which began Thursday — did not lead to a joint political platform, he would call a referendum within 40 days.
The referendum would ask Palestinians to either accept or reject a document that had been drafted earlier this month by 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.
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.
"If you don't reach an agreement within 10 days, I'm going to present the document to a referendum in 40 days. Within 40 days I will ask the people," Abbas told a large gathering at his headquarters in Ramallah.
Hamas officials said they agreed with Abbas on the referendum idea before he made his announcement. Such a vote could provide cover for Hamas and allow the group to moderate without losing face.
"Returning to the people is one of the most important principles in democracy," said Parliament Speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik, of Hamas.
Hamas officials, including Duaik, said the prisoners' document was a good basis for dialogue.
The smaller Islamic Jihad group, which also rejects the existence of Israel and has launched repeated suicide bombings against Israel over the past year, said it opposed the referendum proposal.
Israeli officials declined to comment on Abbas' proposal.
Speaking to reporters after his speech, Abbas said he did not mean his proposal as a game of brinkmanship.
"The situation is getting more dangerous. The whole nation is in danger. We can't wait for the rest of our lives," he said.