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Doubts about Palestinian vote : Officials say election may be postponed, especially with Hamas saying it won't allow balloting in Gaza.

November 13, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Palestinian officials trying to organize a Jan. 24 election recommended Thursday that the vote be postponed, a move that could prolong uncertainty over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' political future and the prospect for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Abbas, who is considered a reliable and moderate leader by the West, threw the Palestinian Authority into a crisis last week by declaring he would not seek reelection. Since then, his Palestinian backers, along with some Israeli officials and leaders of Western governments, have urged him to reconsider.

The independent election commission's call to delay the voting for president and a parliament gives Abbas, 74, the option to heed his supporters' calls and stay in office indefinitely. The commission did not propose a new election date.

A spokesman for Abbas, Nabil abu Rudaineh, said the Palestinian leader would decide on the proposed delay after returning from a trip to Jordan.

Other Palestinian Authority officials said a January election was impossible in light of Hamas' refusal to permit voting in the Gaza Strip, which the militant group controls.

"We received an answer from Hamas that we are not welcome in Gaza," Hanna Nasser, chairman of the election commission, told reporters. "It is clear now that we cannot hold an election in Gaza."

A Hamas spokesman, Sami abu Zuhri, said the group opposed the election because it had been set unilaterally. Abbas had called the vote after months of Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas broke down last month.

Officials in Abbas' Fatah movement are now debating whether to hold elections in only the West Bank later next year or pursue further talks with Hamas on ending their bitter feud.

Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections a year after Abbas assumed the presidency for a four-year term, which officially expired in January. A struggle over control of the security forces in Gaza ended with Fatah's violent expulsion from the enclave in 2007. The split weakened the Palestinian cause and complicated Abbas' peace talks with Israel, which collapsed at the end of last year.

In a speech last week, Abbas said the Obama administration's efforts to revive those talks had been undermined by Israel's refusal to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He said his despair over the impasse had prompted his decision not to seek reelection.

A postponement of the election would require Abbas to seek the approval of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he also heads, to extend his presidential term beyond that date.

It is unclear whether Abbas would agree to remain in office. Some aides have said he might prefer to resign and ask the PLO to name an interim successor.

Thousands of Palestinians turned out Wednesday for a rally on the fifth anniversary of the death of Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, and urged the president to remain in office.

Abbas addressed the crowd but declined to talk about his political future. Instead, he called on Hamas to accept a "hand in friendship" and join with his Fatah movement in the struggle for an independent state.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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

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