THE proposal of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for a referendum on the conditions for future negotiations with Israel appeared to catch most people, including the Hamas-led government, by surprise yesterday. At the end of a rambling speech Mr Abbas outlined his proposal and promptly left the meeting. The most interesting aspect of this development is that the deal which the referendum would put before the Palestinian people has apparently been worked out by high-level Hamas and Fatah prisoners held in Israel's Hadarin prison, among them the influential Marwan Barghouti. Mr Abbas has given the Hamas and Fatah politicians ten days to reach an agreement and will impose his own if they fail to do so. Essentially the Palestinian electorate would be asked to approve a negotiating position for a two-state solution based on the borders which existed in 1967 before Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem; recognition of Israel would also be involved. This would be unacceptable to the current elected Hamas government unless it agreed to accept the outcome of a national referendum. The conditions, as stated, would also be unacceptable to Israel but they would provide the basis for negotiations and negate the Israeli complaint that it has no one to talk to. Mahmoud Abbas' initiative is bold and welcome. However, before he can implement it he may need to obtain parliamentary approval or issue a presidential decree. These are early days.