Donald Macintyre: Leader who finally showed his claws

Perhaps Mahmoud Abbas is not quite the "helpless" figure the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described him as last weekend.

Mr Abbas's authority, dented as much by Israel's relentless depiction of him as nice but weak as by the spectacular election victory over his own Fatah faction of Hamas last January, has never been more under threat. Yet yesterday, the big news he left till last in his speech, with a touch of real theatre this normally impassive man eschews, stands at least a chance of turning that threat into an opportunity. Now a man who had often seemed to be in office but not in power, is, at least for now, suddenly calling the shots.

In relation to Hamas, Mr Abbas appears to be banking on several hypotheses. The first is that the opinion polls which show a decisive majority in favour of a two-state solution among Palestinians would be borne out in an actual referendum.

The second is that Hamas militants who signed the joint document in Hadarim are not as unrepresentative as some hardliners have implied. And the third is that Hamas may either agree a basis for negotiations on his terms in the next 10 days or let a referendum agree it for them, allowing them to bow to the will of the people without sacrificing their ideological purity.

The Hadarim declaration does not explicitly recognise Israel or even renounce armed "resistance". But by envisaging a "final" agreement, it goes much further towards recognition of Israel than even the most moderate pronouncements of Hamas leaders so far.

This week, Hamas offered a long-term truce in return for Israel pulling back to 1967 borders. The document puts them under pressure to accept - in advance of negotiations - that a two-state agreement would mean permanent peace. Israel has been sticking to the line that it still favours the road-map. But that document, never more than moribund, may actually be dead. In present circumstances, the Israeli interpretation of the road-map would mean that before negotiations can progress, Mr Abbas would have, impossibly, to disarm a Hamas elected to government.

Israel has maintained an unwonted silence. It is tempting to believe that was under pressure from a US anxious Mr Abbas be seen as having a real chance. But that cannot be said for sure, any more than it can be said Mr Abbas discussed his dramatic proposition with the US consul general when he met him two days ago in Jerusalem. But whatever the US intentions, always cloudy, the Europeans - including Britain - will want Mr Abbas's initiative to lead to real negotiations, ideally up to a "final status" settlement.

They know well Israel has no intention of withdrawing to 1967 borders or anything like it. But they are desperately hoping one or other of the alternative formulas - like Bill Clinton's at Camp David or the Geneva Initiative - will pull off the impossible.

In a Gaza coping with poverty, Israeli shelling and murderous internal violence, that seems a long way off. But something happened here and in Ramallah yesterday; unilateral "realignment" by Israel of its borders may no longer be the only game in town.