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Palestinian Authority leader, citing U.S. stance, says he won't run for reelection

Mahmoud Abbas laments a lack of U.S. support for his position on reviving peace talks with Israel and insists his decision is not a bargaining ploy. Supporters hope he will reconsider.

November 06, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced Thursday that he would not seek reelection next year, citing a lack of U.S. support for his conditions for resuming peace talks with Israel.

Although he said the decision "is not up for debate," it was widely interpreted as a tactical gamble to push Israel toward compromise and rally support among Palestinians. Abbas has groomed no successor and, because of uncertainty about whether elections will take place, could end up staying indefinitely in his post.

The 74-year-old successor to the late Yasser Arafat is viewed as a symbol of Palestinian moderation. His departure would complicate U.S. peace efforts and open a succession battle among contenders in his fractious Fatah movement and its militant rival, Hamas.

Abbas, visibly tense, spoke on television hours after the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee heard his decision in a closed-door meeting and urged him to reconsider.

Word of his plans, leaked by aides earlier in the day, had prompted Israeli President Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to telephone him with the same advice.

The careful phrasing in Abbas' speech appeared to leave room for a change of heart.

"I have told our brethren in the PLO . . . that I have no desire to run in the forthcoming election," Abbas said. "I hope they understand this position of mine."

Abbas has been frustrated by the Obama administration's inability to secure a halt to Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements on West Bank land the Palestinians want for a future state.

U.S.-brokered peace talks hit an impasse in December, and Abbas has refused to resume them unless Israel agrees to a settlement freeze. Aides said he began speaking of stepping down after the Obama administration in recent weeks backed away from its insistence on a freeze and urged the two sides to settle their differences on the issue at the negotiating table.

President Obama telephoned Abbas late last month, the aides said, to reassure him of Washington's commitment to a peace accord. But days later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on a stop in Jerusalem, applauded Israel's offer to curb settlement growth rather than halting it altogether.

On Wednesday, Clinton sought to assuage Arab anger over those comments. Speaking in Cairo, she said the administration has "a very firm belief that ending all settlement activity, current and future, would be preferable."

In his speech, Abbas said the growth of settlements "month after month, year after year . . . compromises the credibility of negotiations" and "ruins all peace efforts." He said he was initially encouraged by the Obama administration's policy, but then "surprised by their favoring the Israeli position."

After he spoke, Clinton praised his leadership in the cause of Palestinian statehood. Ignoring a question about whether she would try to persuade him to stay, she said she looked forward to working with Abbas "in any new capacity."

Hani Masri, a prominent Palestinian analyst and commentator, said Abbas may have expected a stronger expression of support from the U.S.

Abbas' move is "a tactic with a high risk," Masri said. "It can go either way: He can lose the gamble and end his career, or he can draw popular support and international demands for him to stay on."

The Palestinian leader previously had threatened to resign, and supporters in Fatah said they were uncertain whether his decision this time is final. The movement was planning a rally in the West Bank to urge Abbas to stay.

Abbas was elected to head the Palestinian Authority and the PLO in 2005 after the death of Arafat, who helped found and led both. The Palestinian Authority is due to elect a president and parliament next year, and Abbas has set Jan. 24 as the date for voting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But bitter divisions among Palestinians make a vote uncertain.

Abbas' government controls only the West Bank. Hamas, which ousted Fatah's forces from Gaza in 2007, has said it will not take part in elections unless the rival factions reconcile their differences over a broad range of issues.

In his speech, Abbas heaped as much blame on Hamas as on Israel for the breakdown of peace efforts. Egypt's attempts to help reunify the Palestinian movement and strengthen its hand against Israel had been "thwarted at every turn" by Hamas, he said.

Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri called Abbas' speech "a symbol of failure after America and Israel used him as a tool."

"We advise him to . . . face the Palestinian people and tell them frankly that the path of negotiations has failed. Halt negotiations with the occupation and take practical steps toward reconciliation," Abu Zuhri said.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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