The surprise announcement, by Mordechai Gur, the deputy defence minister, came a day after a summit meeting between the Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, and the US President, Bill Clinton. Mr Gur told the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, that he was speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the government.
Publicly, Israeli officials have played down the signficance of the Geneva summit, suggesting that talk of new concessions from President Assad had been exaggerated by the United States and an Israeli-Syrian deal is still a long way off.
However, the timing of the referendum announcement, ahead of new negotiations with Syria in Washington next week, appeared to indicate that Mr Rabin, who was briefed by US officials yesterday, has been convinced that in Geneva President Assad showed new seriousness about peace.
The prospect of swift movement towards an agreement with Syria places Mr Rabin in a political bind. Although he is confident of support in the Knesset for a peace deal with the Palestinians, he is less confident of securing backing for a deal with Syria, which is certain to require a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Mr Rabin is almost certainly reconciled to such a withdrawal should he get the full peace he demands in return. However, several of his Labour members in the Knesset are hawks on the Golan Heights question and would not back Mr Rabin, whose coalition has only 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
By announcing a referendum on a Syrian deal now Mr Rabin may be calculating that he can defuse political opposition and start the job of winning round Israeli public opinion instead.
Political analysts believe the referendum announcement may be directed at Mr Assad himself. Mr Rabin would like the Syrian President to help bring the Israeli public round to the idea of withdrawal from the Golan by stating more clearly what he is prepared to offer in return, in terms of full peace with open borders, embassies and free trade.
However, as public opinion in Israel stands today, a referendum on the Golan issue would be a big gamble. Israelis are in general more sceptical about the wisdom of handing back the Golan Heights than they are about granting self-rule to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Only 6 per cent of Israelis would be willing to hand back all the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace deal, while 46 per cent would refuse to give back any and 15 per cent would give back a part, according to an opinion poll carried out last February by the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies.