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Palestinian President Says He Won't Run In January Election

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas

(RFE/RL) -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, the chief advocate among Palestinians for a negotiated peace with Israel, says he will not run in the territory’s January presidential and parliamentary election.

Speaking on Palestinian television on November 5, Abbas called his decision firm and expressed frustration over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“We are at a crossroads,” Abbas said. “Month after month, year after year, we have seen nothing but complacency and procrastination.”

The announcement comes just days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the region in an effort to kick-start stalled peace talks.

If implemented, Abbas’ decision could now redouble the challenge for Washington by leaving the peace process in still greater uncertainty.

Clinton, speaking to reporters in Washington, gave a cautious initial response to Abbas’ move.

"I think [a two-state solution] is only way for the Palestinian people to fulfill their own aspirations and for Israel to have the kind of security it deserves," she said, "and I look forward to working with President Abbas in any new capacity in order to help achieve this goal."

Other U.S. officials appeared to seek to leave the door open for Abbas to change his mind.

"We have tremendous respect for President Abbas. He has been an important and historic leader for the Palestinian people and a true partner for the United States," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "I think he has worked to better the lives of Palestinians."

It is unclear whether Abbas intends his decision to be irrevocable. His current term as president expires in January.

A close aide to Abbas, Yasser Abed Rabbo, told Western media immediately after Abbas spoke that the announcement should “be understood as an urgent scream against the continuing pressure and bending of our arms” by the United States and Israel.

Intended As A Bluff?

The Israeli government has yet to respond publicly to Abbas’ announcement. But many Israeli media outlets discounted his step as a bluff intended to wring concessions from Jerusalem.

“The Abu Mazen Threat Show,” read a headline in Israel’s daily "Maariv" newspaper. Abu Mazen is Abbas’ nom-de-guerre among Palestinians.

Israel’s daily "Yediot Aharonot" wrote that "this announcement is a tactical step aimed first and foremost at the Americans."

News reports say that officials from Egypt, Jordan, and the Arab League have urged Abbas to run again for president.

Frustration among Palestinians over the peace process is high and Abbas’ announcement follows months of failed attempts by Washington to restart direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas has been demanding an unequivocal halt to Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank as a condition for new talks.

But he is reported to have been offended during Clinton’s trip to the Mideast earlier this month when she praised Israel’s offer of limited restrictions on construction of new settlements as “unprecedented.”

Political Toll

Analysts say the months of no progress are taking a political toll on Abbas, with his standing among Palestinians declining. As the major voice for a negotiated settlement, he needs to be able to show progress in order to maintain Palestinian popular support for his stance.

His problems are compounded by the fact that the rival Palestinian faction Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and adamantly opposes peace talks with Israel. Hamas is quick to point to any setbacks for Abbas as proof that his Fatah faction’s backing of the peace process is doomed to fail.

Abbas called elections for January in an effort to reunite the Hamas’ controlled Gaza Strip with the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Washington had hoped the poll would also give Abbas a new mandate to pursue the peace process.

But Hamas termed Abbas’ scheduling of the January election illegitimate. The militant Islamist group indicated no poll should take place before the main Palestinian factions could agree on a unity pact.

All that makes it unclear if the Palestinians can in fact hold elections in January. Now, as Abbas says he will not run, it becomes still more uncertain whether a poll will actually take place.

Abbas’ term as president, as he was originally elected in 2005, ended on January 9, 2009. But he unilaterally extended his term for another year, claiming a presidential right to do so, before scheduling new elections for January 2010.