Abbas' surprise announcement was a political gamble that could either help resolve the Palestinians' internal deadlock or lead them into a deeper crisis with the militant Hamas group.
Such a vote would effectively ask Palestinians to give implicit recognition to Israel by accepting a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in 1967. Approval of the 18-point plan would provide a way out of the impasse over acceptance of Israel, which has led to an international freeze on aid to the Hamas-led government.
"A referendum could allow Hamas to moderate its position without appearing that it caved in to international pressure," CBS News correspondent Robert Berger reports. "At the same time, Hamas would not have to directly recognize Israel, but could just say that it accepts the referendum."
Hamas officials were divided over the idea of a referendum, with several giving their blessing, but others dismissing it as an attempt to undercut the Hamas-led government.
A referendum, which Palestinian pollsters expect to pass, could provide cover for the militants to moderate without appearing to succumb to Western pressure. Such a vote could also renew pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table rather than imposing borders on the Palestinians.
Abbas' proposal came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned from a trip to Washington, where he presented President Bush with a West Bank pullout plan. Olmert said if there is no breakthrough in long-stalled peace efforts in the coming months, Israel would withdraw from much of the West Bank, solidify its control of large settlement blocs and unilaterally draw its border with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians reject Olmert's unilateral plan, and Abbas' announcement Thursday appeared part of a hurried effort to show the world there is a willing Palestinian partner for negotiations with Israel. The proposed Palestinian state would be created in all the territories captured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, including the West Bank, Gaza and the sacred Old City of Jerusalem, Berger reports. That is unacceptable to Israel, Berger adds.
In other developments:
Abbas said that if 10 days of dialogue between Hamas and his Fatah movement did not lead to a joint political platform, he would call a referendum 40 days after that. The dialogue began Thursday.
The referendum would ask Palestinians to either accept or reject a document that had been drafted earlier this month by senior Palestinian militants jailed in Israel. The five-page document calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
The draft was negotiated by leading prisoners from Hamas and Fatah over the period of four weeks at Israel's Hadarim Prison, where top Fatah prisoner Marwan Barghouti is being held.