The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has issued a dramatic ultimatum to advance a peace process by warning Hamas that he would put proposals for a two-state solution to a Palestinian referendum unless the faction agreed to them within 10 days.
The surprise move, designed to overcome Hamas resistance to recognising Israel, stunned a conference of all the Palestinian factions and is easily the most notable seizure of the political and diplomatic initiative by the frequently beleaguered President since he took office 15 months ago.
The referendum pledge came at the end of a speech in which he issued an impassioned warning to delegates, including the most senior members of the Hamas cabinet running the Palestinian Authority, that Arab states could not advance a negotiated settlement if the Palestinians themselves "are rejecting everything".
Mr Abbas's uncharacteristically flamboyant stroke confronts Hamas, which is doctrinally committed to the elimination of Israel, with a choice between signing in advance of negotiations to a two-state deal based on the pre-occupation 1967 borders or having the decision taken out of their hands by a Palestinian plebiscite, which Mr Abbas would call in July.
But by using the tactic to try to undermine Israel's argument that there is "no partner" for peace talks, Mr Abbas also threatens to cast doubt on the unilateralist strategy of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in withdrawing from parts of the West Bank while annexing others rather than relying on a negotiating process to fix Israel's borders.
Mr Olmert promised President George Bush in Washington this week that he would first pursue negotiations with Mr Abbas as a quid pro quo for the unexpectedly warm, if conditional, support proffered by the Mr Bush for his unilateral plan. But aides to Mr Olmert predicted such negotiations would fail in what they saw as the likely event that Hamas would stand by its refusal to recognise Israel or renounce armed "resistance" to the occupation.
Mr Abbas has seized the opportunity afforded by a document drawn up this month in the Israeli prison of Hadarim by Marwan Barghouti, and Hamas fellow inmates. Barghouti, a widely respected one-time Fatah rival for the presidency, is calling for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as its capital.
The document stops short of committing the Hamas signatories to explicit recognition of Israel and even of renouncing violence. Hamas is maintaining a ceasefire of its own while declining to restrain or condemn other groups from attacks on Israel, including last month's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The joint document says armed resistance should be "concentrated" on targets such as settlements and military bases in occupied territory.
But because of the influence commanded in the factions by its members detained in Israeli jails, the document's recommendation that Mr Abbas be authorised to negotiate a "final" two-state solution based on 1967 borders was widely seen in Palestinian circles as the most concrete sign yet of readiness among some Hamas militants to change their stance.
Hamas appeared to be taken by surprise. Mushir al-Masri, a prominent Hamas parliamentarian in Gaza, said the move was a "coup against the democratic choice" of the Palestinians. But Abdel Aziz Duaik of Hamas, the Speaker of the parliament, said the prisoners' document was a "good basis for dialogue", and added: "Returning to the people is one of the most important principles in democracy."
After several hours the Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was "watching developments in the PA closely", but re-iterated its own, and international, demands for Hamas "unequivocally" to recognise Israel and "totally and compoletely" renounce violence. But a mainstream Labour politician, Ephraim Sneh, said Israel should respond. Yossi Beilin, leader of the left-wing Meretz Party said if the document was approved in a referendum Israel "should negotiate with Hamas".
The Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh had earlier given the strongest hint yet that Hamas was ready to join the "national home" of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which would itself be a highly significant step since the PLO charter recognises Israel.Reuse content