The government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday postponed municipal elections by three months until October, saying it needs more time to ensure the vote can be held in both the West Bank and Gaza.
The decision was part of a recent reconciliation process between Abbas' Fatah movement and the Islamic militant Hamas group. The two sides have been torn between rival governments for the past four years, with Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in control of Gaza, and only last week they agreed to repair the rift.
The municipal elections will be a key test for the Palestinians, providing the first gauge of each side's popularity and giving a strong indicator of whether they can get along. After last week's unity deal, Fatah and Hamas are working on forming a unity government _ a process that is expected to take weeks or even months.
Abbas' West Bank government said Tuesday it decided to put off the elections from July 9 to Oct. 22, to allow reconciliation to take hold and "to provide the proper atmosphere to hold the elections in the entire Palestinian territories."
Hamas, which had said it would boycott the vote when elections were first set, has reversed that stand.
"Hamas will participate in all elections and this is something that has been stated in the reconciliation deal," said Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader. The Palestinians hope to hold national legislative and presidential elections next year.
The municipal vote would be the first election in the Palestinian territories since January 2006. In those elections, Hamas defeated Fatah, and the two sides formed a short-lived unity government that ultimately collapsed into heavy fighting. In June 2007, Hamas overran Gaza, causing the deep split the sides are now trying to mend.
It's important for Abbas to present a united front as he prepares to ask the United Nations to recognize an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Abbas is seeking a U.N. vote in September, a month before the elections would take place.
In a newspaper opinion article published Tuesday, Abbas acknowledged that U.N. recognition would not change the situation on the ground, but would give him more leverage in negotiations with Israel.
"Palestine would be negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another ... and not as a vanquished people ready to accept whatever terms are put in front of us," Mahmoud Abbas wrote in The New York Times, presenting his most detailed explanation yet of his reasons for the U.N. bid.
He said, for instance, an upgraded status could open the door for legal action against Israel, including at the International Court of Justice.
In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Abbas' article was full of inaccuracies, like implying that the Arabs accepted the 1947 U.N. partition plan setting up Israel and a Palestinian state, when in fact Palestinians and Arab nations rejected it and attacked Israel.
"It can be inferred from these comments that the Palestinian leadership sees the establishment of the Palestinian state as a means to continue its conflict with Israel instead of finishing it," he said in a statement.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said that in light of the political upheavals in the Mideast, "it's more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating a process whereby they can create two states that are living side by side in peace and security." Obama spoke after meeting Jordan's King Abdullah II.