Palestinian vote put off, Abbas remains in office

AP News
Posted: Nov 12, 2009 5:24 PM

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who last week said he didn't want to run for re-election, may get to stay in office without a single ballot being cast.

The Palestinian Election Commission ruled Thursday that January's scheduled vote should be put off because of opposition from the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is a rival of Abbas' Fatah faction.

Abbas raised international concern last week when he declined to run for another term, suggesting he was frustrated over a 10-month stalemate in Israel-Palestinian peacemaking. His departure would have thrown peace efforts into turmoil.

Now it appears Abbas may have been signaling his need for more backing from the U.S. against Israel since Hamas' rejection of a vote was likely.

The Palestinian Election Commission blamed Gaza's Hamas rulers for forcing the postponement.

Hamas overran Gaza in 2007, expelling Fatah forces loyal to Abbas. Hamas leaders oppose an election organized by Fatah, and without Gaza a complete election cannot be held.

Abbas has insisted that talks with Israel cannot resume until Israel halts all construction in its West Bank settlements. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose hardline Cabinet would not approve such a freeze, countered that the issue should be dealt with in the negotiations.

Talks broke off in January with no agreement on basic issues.

President Barack Obama's administration is perceived by Palestinians as switching sides, first demanding a construction freeze, then praising Netanyahu's pledge not to build new settlements _ though limited construction in existing ones would continue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who carefully rejected Abbas' demand during a visit to the region two weeks ago, called the no new settlement pledge an "unprecedented concession" on the part of Netanyahu, though Israel originally made that commitment in 2002.

Later, Clinton said the settlement issue would be resolved automatically if the two sides could agree on borders, then repeating U.S. opposition to all Israeli settlements.

Palestinians consider the settlements a huge impediment, taking up land and resources they want for a state and leading Israel to maintain hundreds of roadblocks throughout the West Bank, which stifles their economy and society.

All this has left Abbas, already weakened by his loss of Gaza and his lack of popular support, in a difficult position. If he sticks to his position that settlement construction must stop before negotiations resume, talks may remain frozen because of Israel's position.

But if he bends on that key issue to allow renewal of talks, he will be attacked by Hamas, a radical Islamic movement that does not recognize Israel and dismisses peace accords with the Jewish state as capitulation to occupiers.

The election commission did not set a new date, meaning the election is postponed indefinitely. Recent Palestinian polls showed Hamas and Fatah in a close race in both parliamentary and presidential elections _ another possible Fatah motivation for postponing the vote.

Abbas, who was elected in 2005 after the death of legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has not announced whether he will accept the recommendation of the commission. Fatah insiders say he may leave that up to the umbrella group PLO.

Announcing its decision on Thursday, the election commission said it has closed its offices in Gaza, meaning an indefinite delay.

Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Palestinian election commission, said Hamas refused to cooperate with election workers, making it impossible to hold the Jan. 24 election.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his group opposed the election because it was declared by one side. "Without reconciliation, there will be no election," he said

In Syria, Hamas distributed a statement saying the recommendations of election officials show that an earlier decree issued by Abbas to hold elections in January was "illegitimate" because it was taken unilaterally, without Hamas agreement.

Abbas was in neighboring Jordan on Thursday and did not comment.

"President Abbas will make the appropriate decision after he returns," said his spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh. "Hamas' decision to ban the election commission from working in Gaza proves that Hamas is not eager to reach national unity and reconciliation."

Two senior Fatah officials said the party is divided about whether to pursue further reconciliation talks with Hamas, or eventually hold elections in the West Bank only. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal policy discussions.