Abbas Decision to Withdraw From Race Draws Israeli, U.S. Concern

Aides say Palestinian leader disheartened by U.S. support of Israel's continued settlement construction.

Israeli and American officials expressed concern over Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's announcement on Thursday that he would not be running for reelection in January.

President Shimon Peres telephoned Abbas on Wednesday night in an effort to persuade the Palestinian leader to change his mind. Peres told Abbas that he was worried that the decision would trigger political crisis in the Palestinian Authority, leading to a Hamas takeover in the West Bank.

"If you leave the Palestinians would lose their chance for an independent state," Peres told Abbas. "The situation in the region would deteriorate. Stay, for the Palestinian people's sake," he said.

Aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to comment on Abbas' statement, but the prime minister has reportedly said in private meetings recently that it was in Israel's interest to have a strong Abbas who could advance the peace process. Netanyahu made similar statements to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a week ago, saying that it was in Israel's interest to strengthen Abbas as much as possible.

"Of the existing alternatives, if we want an agreement with the Palestinians then Abbas is the best partner," Netanyahu said a few days ago.

He said he was serious about the peace process with the Palestinians and was ready to take risks to advance peace, despite the PA leadership's impression to the contrary.

"The best partner is Abbas, but any Israeli intervention in internal Palestinian politics would only do harm," Netanyahu said. Defense Minister Ehud Barak added that he hoped Abbas' reluctance to run for reelection would not damage the attempt to resume the peace process.

"It's important for both sides to adhere to the principle of negotiating to advance an arrangement," Barak said in a statement. "I suggest making every effort to reach a two-state-for-two-peoples arrangement, while preserving Israel's security interests," he said.

A senior U.S. official, speaking anonymously about the possibility of Abbas disappearing from the political scene, said, "There's a real crisis situation in the PA." Clinton asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday and Arab foreign ministers she met in Morocco two days earlier to urge Abbas to remain in office and run for reelection.

After Abbas' speech, Clinton praised his leadership in working toward the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, she ignored a question about whether she would urge Abbas to stay on and saying only that she would go on working with him to advance peace.

Abbas: My decision is final

Abbas said Thursday that he had no wish to seek reelection through a presidential poll he called for January, blaming the stalemate in the peace talks on Israel and the United States.

Abbas and his associates were particularly critical of the U.S. administration, which Abbas believes betrayed him.

In a speech broadcast live from Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas, 74, said: "I have told our brethren in the Palestine Liberation Organization ... that I have no desire to run in the forthcoming election." Abbas succeeded Yasser Arafat as PLO leader five years ago.

But Abbas' careful wording left room for the possibility that he could be persuaded to change his mind, especially if he perceives the United States as backing his demand for a total end to Israeli construction in West Bank settlements.

Abbas' tenuous domestic political position would make it difficult for him to agree to peace talks without a settlement construction freeze. His Hamas rivals would likely jump on a capitulation to embarrass him.

The decision, reported earlier in the day by aides to Abbas, set off a flurry of calls from regional leaders, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan all urging him change his mind.

Abbas was surprised and disappointed when the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama embraced Israel's position about construction in the settlements and especially in East Jerusalem, Abbas' associates said.

"The problem is Israel and its positions," Abbas said, but associates said he really meant Obama, not Israel.

They said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's praise for Israel's stand in favor of curtailing but not halting settlement construction stunned Abbas, who had previously received full support from the Americans, they said.

Clinton's recent statements in Egypt, according to which the United States does not see the settlements as legitimate, was unsatisfactory to Abbas.

Washington's aggressive statements about the settlements and its uncompromising demands of Israel had driven Abbas to condition the talks on freezing construction in East Jerusalem as well, Abbas aides said.

When the administration changed its position, Abbas was left with no American support, they said.

PA believes Abbas trying to up U.S. pressure on Israel

Abbas' move is seen in Ramallah as aimed at getting the U.S. to exert greater pressure on Israel, especially in view of the lack of a suitable candidate to replace Abbas in the presidential election against Hamas.

To change Abbas' mind Washington will have to produce results from Israel regarding the construction in the settlements. Without significant American achievements, especially vis-a-vis East Jerusalem, Abbas is unlikely to change his decision.

In this case, it is doubtful whether the elections will take place and Abbas will remain in office for a while.

Late last month Abbas told Clinton that he would not run, but recanted after Obama called him and expressed his commitment to Mideast peacemaking, Abbas' aides said.

In the following days, Clinton sought to clarify the American position, first offering warm praise for Israel's offer to somewhat limit West Bank settlement building and then telling Arab leaders that the U.S. wants to see this construction stopped forever.

After Abbas' speech yesterday, Clinton praised his leadership in working toward the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

She ignored a question about whether she would try to persuade Abbas to stay on and said: I look forward to working with President Abbas in any new capacity to help achieve this goal.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Abbas' reluctance to run for reelection was a message of reproach to his friends, the Americans and the Israelis.

"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," he said.