The idea of holding a national referendum was planted in the mind of the Palestinian president as soon as the election results were announced on January 25 and the extent of Fatah's shellacking became clear.
At the time, PA President Abbas tried to paint himself as a great democrat, but Fatah revolutionary Abu Mazen (Abbas' nom de guerre) immediately began plotting and thinking of round-the-bout ways to keep his party in control.
President Abbas lowered his head at the humiliating results, quickly declared himself "everybody's president" and promised to "honor the decision." But revolutionary Abu Mazen started working on plans for a "democratic" regime change for the two-headed PA.
In simpler terms, he began looking for ways to "shorten the life-span" of the Hamas government.
The plot to disband the Hamas government was created because Abbas believes that the Palestinian public made a rash, irresponsible protest vote in electing a radical, religious, fundamentalist group, and he believes the people deserve better.
It would take the Hamas government a year to change its ways, but it would appear that four months have been too much. President Abbas spoke about lifting the international siege, of rehabilitating the stagnant economy, of paying salaries to tens of thousands of PA employees and feeding tens of thousands of hungry mouths.
But Fatah leader Abu Mazen spoke about a return to glory: building a civilian, secular Fatah government that would once again enjoy international credibility.
Last week's "prisoner's document" is an effective tool. It was written at the behest of Abu Mazen's party rival Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in Israel for murder. Barghouti's document was intended to be less rigid than Hamas' total refusal, but more rigid than the pragmatic line taken by Fatah.
By toughening up and bending at the same time, the document is meant to attract additional supporters. It is uncompromising in its demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 border, including in East Jerusalem, and in its demand to establish a Palestinian state on the evacuated lands.
On the other hand, there is not even a hint of compromising demands for a right of return to Israel, and above all, it does not explicitly recognize Israel. Barghouti brought four other senior prisoners on board, representing Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the various "front" movements, all of whom would like to see an early release from prison, and who have called the document a "statement for national fulfillment."
The Hamas movement rejects the "national fulfillment. The most the organization could agree to is national escalation. Even the demand that Hamas join the Palestine Liberation Organization is a sort of modern-day Nakba (disaster).
Hamas views the referendum as a threat, and an anti-democratic stunt on the part of Fatah leader Abu Mazen intended to reverse the election results that brought victory to Hamas.
What will happen now in the PA? As soon as the president signs the decree calling a referendum, it will no longer be possible to put the genie back in the bottle. Or then, President Abbas will instruct his Fatah supporters to make sure the referendum is held within 40 days.
If the vote were held today, we can assume the prisoners' document would get widespread support. A society in which half of all homes are economically depressed, in which some 40 percent of potential workers are unemployed, and in which tens of thousands of police officers and civil employees do not receive their salaries on a regular basis is an easier society to convince.
But a couple of months of salaries to PA workers and some kind Western eyes towards Hamas could have a positive influence on the vote from Hamas' perspective.
With 40 days to work with, Hamas leaders will feel the prisoner's document has no chance to win public approval – and the battle will remain in the political realm alone, on the level of street battles. Abbas could resign, or could even call new elections.
On the other hand, the notion that power could be stolen "from right under their noses" will bring Hamas leaders to strongly oppose. Or then we will see a terrible bloodbath that would end in Fatah forcibly seizing power.
Bad for Israel
Is all this a "domestic Palestinian issue," as Israel's official stance says it is? Not exactly. Nothing good for Israel will come out of if Hamas becomes more flexible according to the prisoners' document, that could be taken overseas as a true reversal for that organization, and could therefore push Israel into a corner and paint Israel as the party that opposes peace.
The moderate Arab countries and the West are hoping for a miracle, and for Hamas to accept the document, because from that moment forward, all pressure will be on Israel. It is enough that Israel will face demands to release several thousand prisoners – a price the West will consider 'reasonable' for Hamas' "flexibility" – in order to get into a new political and international maelstrom.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe Elad was a senior official in the territories, and today is a researcher at the Shmuel Neeman Institute at the Technion