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That Hamas and Islamic Jihad contributors to the prisoners' document would distance themselves from it was expected.

Late last week, as the dispute between Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was approaching the boiling point, the Hamas leaders in Israeli prisons were asked to undermine the significance of the document on which Abbas was relying heavily.

Sheikh Abdel Khaleq Natche - an imprisoned Hamas leader who signed the original document - and the Islamic Jihad representative issued a clarification stating that the formulation of the document is not carved in stone, nor should it serve as a point of dispute. The two added that a referendum should be held on a document that had garnered consensus and could not be challenged.

Abbas was not impressed by the stance of the imprisoned Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders and proceeded with setting a date for the referendum. The breakdown of Palestinian unity on the document was then impossible to prevent. All recognized that Abbas was pushing for the referendum not because he was interested in support for the document, but to prove that he is more popular than Hamas and therefore to undermine Hamas' public support from the elections. The document was transformed into an excuse.

In an effort to avoid a political confrontation, and using the bloody events of Friday as a cover, Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued their final rejection. The aim of the document, wrote the Hamas prisoners, was to create Palestinian unity, and it defeats its own purpose if it leads instead to disunity.

Incidentally, the dispute between Hamas and Fatah is not limited to the issue of the borders of Palestine, or the question of whether to recognize Israel, but also - perhaps mainly - over the question of representation. Hamas challenges the document's claim that the PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinian people, and is seeking to crush the basis of legitimacy on which the PLO relies for directing Palestinian policy.

The question now is whether, after the breakdown of consensus on the document's validity, Abbas still has any justification for holding the referendum. Logically and ideologically this document lacks all political significance. Its current status is that of a document by the Fatah prisoners on principles that do not require any approval. After all, Abbas was elected president a year and a half ago on the basis of these same principles.

For Abbas, the sole reason to hold a referendum would be to prove that he is popular and as such dismiss the sense that Hamas continues to enjoy massive public support. Abbas may be basing his efforts on opinion polls that reflect his popularity, and may be seeking to prove those assessments at the polls.

However, in view of the realities on the ground, the deaths of civilians on Friday, the escalation of violence between the various factions and the absence of diplomatic hope, which may lead to the next intifada, a referendum may not bring the desired results for Abbas.