PLO extends Abbas' presidential term

AP News
Posted: Dec 16, 2009 11:02 AM

The Palestine Liberation Organization indefinitely extended Mahmoud Abbas' term as Palestinian president on Wednesday and endorsed his refusal to negotiate with Israel unless it freezes all settlement construction.

The decision, which was expected, nonetheless gave an important vote of confidence to the embattled president. Abbas' inability to reconcile with the rival Hamas movement or wrest concessions from Israel has hurt his popularity among many Palestinians.

The Western-backed Abbas has repeatedly threatened to step down in frustration over the impasse with Israel, while simultaneously hinting that he could be persuaded to remain in office. Wednesday's vote by the PLO's Central Council gives Abbas more time to work out his problems.

He did say, though, in an interview published Wednesday, that Israel and the Palestinians could reach a comprehensive peace deal within six months if Israel completely froze settlement construction.

The vote endorsed Abbas' earlier decision to call off presidential and parliamentary elections, which had been set for January. Abbas says it is impossible to hold the election due to Hamas' refusal to allow voting in its Gaza Strip stronghold.

The extension, which also applies to parliament members, ensures that Abbas' government continue to function until elections can be held in "the entire homeland," said Central Council member Saleh Rafat. It did not set a date for a new vote.

The Palestinians have been divided between two governments since Hamas militants wrested control of Gaza from Abbas' forces in June 2007. Abbas now governs only the West Bank.

Multiple attempts to reconcile the two groups have failed, and Hamas has signaled that it will not agree to new elections until an agreement with Fatah is reached.

In Gaza, Hamas criticized Wednesday's PLO vote as "a confiscation of democracy."

"The Central Council is not elected and illegal, and all of its decisions are illegal and not binding on our people," said spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

The Central Council also endorsed Abbas' refusal to return to negotiations with Israel until it stops construction of Jewish settlements on lands the Palestinians want for a future state, as laid out in the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Peace talks broke down a year ago and have not resumed since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister of Israel in March.

Abbas told the Israeli daily Haaretz that he proposed the six-month freeze to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in a pair of a recent telephone conversations.

"I suggested to him (Barak) three weeks ago that Israel freeze all construction in the settlements for six months, including east Jerusalem," Abbas told the Israeli daily Haaretz. "During this time we can get back to the table and even complete talks on a final status agreement. I have yet to receive an answer."

Barak's office refused to respond to Abbas' comments. But a spokesman for Netanyahu said the Palestinians should "stop making excuses."

Netanyahu has announced a 10-month moratorium on all new construction projects in the West Bank. But Palestinians have rejected the move as insufficient, since some building continues and the limitations do not apply to east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital.

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, and today, nearly 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in the two areas.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said it was time for Abbas to return to talks, rather than dictate preconditions.

"We have just seen the Palestinian leadership place more and more obstacles in restarting the talks," he said. "I call upon the Palestinian side to stop making excuses and return to talks."

The impasse over resuming peace talks comes at a time when Abbas' political standing at home is steadily eroding. His term as president was due to end in January, five years after he was elected, and his standoff with Hamas is intensifying.

Abbas has said he would not run for elections again due to frustration with the peace process, a position repeated in the Haaretz interview.

"If I can't reach my goals, I see no reason to hold on to my chair," he said.