Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was supposed to face reelection… (Atef Safadi / European Pressphoto…)
Reporting from Ramallah, West Bank — With a giant poster of deceased leader Yasser Arafat smiling over them, members of the Palestine Liberation Organization's central council gathered here Tuesday to indefinitely extend President Mahmoud Abbas' term until credible elections can be held.
The extension, expected to be formally approved today, should provide a degree of short-term stability to the fractured Palestinian movement. But for some, the stopgap measure only papers over an emerging PLO leadership crisis that could become yet another obstacle to peace talks.
"We're at a political dead-end," said Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the central council and a political adversary of Abbas. "There is a serious political crisis."
He questioned whether Fatah, the dominant PLO political party that administers parts of the West Bank, and its rival Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, are serious about holding elections.
"They are happy with the status quo because both have concentrated the power and are able to practice authority without accountability," Barghouti said.
Abbas, who was elected Palestinian Authority president after Arafat's death in 2004, was supposed to face reelection next month. The vote was postponed, for the second time in a year, after Hamas said it would prohibit polling in Gaza. The Islamist-run party, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, seized control of the coastal strip in 2007, spurring a collapse of the power-sharing agreement it had forged with the secular Fatah.
With today's expected endorsement by the central council, Abbas, 74, will hold on to the reins in the West Bank for at least six more months, by which time Palestinians hope to settle the Fatah-Hamas split and reschedule a vote.
Abbas has repeatedly said he does not want to run in the next election. Those close to him say he's tired and frustrated by the lack of progress in peace talks.
Such talk has raised concerns within the PLO and has worried the United States and Israel, which view Abbas as a moderate who disavows the use of violence.
In his speech Tuesday, Abbas vented his frustration at both the U.S. and Israel, which he said have failed to do enough to put peace negotiations back on track. In particular, Palestinians want Israel to halt construction of housing on land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that Israel captured in 1967.
Instead, the Israeli government has agreed to a partial 10-month freeze in the West Bank that would limit construction to completing 3,000 units in various stages of construction. Israel is also continuing to approve building in contested parts of Jerusalem and last week voted to provide financial benefits to some settlers.
"For us, this is not a freeze," Abbas said. He also faulted the Obama administration for initially insisting on a total halt in construction but later praising the partial freeze.
Despite Abbas' repeated threats to step aside, many PLO leaders believe he can be persuaded to run again.
"Abu Mazen is going to be our next candidate," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a member of Fatah, referring to Abbas by his other name.
But others in the PLO, particularly those among a second generation of leaders who rose to positions of power this year, have voiced frustration with what they see as the group's lack of direction and single-minded pursuit of peace talks.
"They have no strategy," said Barghouti, who is calling for a campaign of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience to pressure Israel. Others in the PLO favor a return to violence or rebellion.
A recent poll found that the Palestinian public has mixed feelings about Abbas. Fifty-seven percent said they would support his decision to step down, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
At the same time, Abbas remained the most popular presidential candidate, with 54% of respondents saying they would vote for him, according to the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Another wild card is the fate of Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah member and popular Palestinian leader serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail for his role in uprisings. A distant relative of Mustafa Barghouti, he could be released soon as part of a deal with the Israeli government to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Gaza-based militants in June 2006.
Barghouti is among several hundred Palestinian prisoners who may be released, though negotiations have not concluded. Due to his popularity among Palestinians and credibility with Hamas, many see Barghouti as someone who could unite the factions and usher in a new phase of Palestinian leadership.
Hamas leaders, who held a massive rally Monday to celebrate the organization's 22nd anniversary, show no signs of warming to Abbas. They said they would reject any extension of his term as illegitimate.
Nabil Shaath, a Fatah member, said the outlook for the PLO in the next few months is so unclear that many party members are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, particularly on the matter of succession.
For now, he said, party members want to avoid a bruising internal power struggle and keep the focus on their demands of Israel and the international community.
"There is an internal decision that we will not engage in the succession game," Shaath said. "That kind of thing tends to be boisterous and disruptive and could create a feeling of insecurity. We want to keep the focus on the issues."