Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that he had no wish to seek re-election at a presidential poll he has called for January and that he was not ready to debate the issue.
In a speech broadcast live from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the 74-year-old PLO leader, who replaced the late Yasser Arafat five years ago, said: "I have told our brethren in the PLO ... that I have no desire to run in the forthcoming election."
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded Abbas' announcement, saying that Abbas' reluctance to run for re-election 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.
Hamas and Abbas have led rival governments in Gaza and the West Bank for the past two years, after Hamas' bloody seizure of the coastal area in 2007.
Earlier Thursday, Abbas cited the lack of progress in peace talks with Israel as the reason for not running for re-election, Palestinian officials said.
The Western-backed Palestinian leader announced his plans at a meeting of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the West Bank.
Head of the PLO Executive Committee Yasser Abed Rabbo announced Thursday that the committee had rejected Abbas' announcement, but Palestinian sources told Haaretz that for now, it does not appear that Abbas will reconsider. Experts believe that unless enormous international pressure is exerted on Israel to change its settlement policy, Abbas will remain true to his word and refrain from running for re-election.
Abbas has threatened in the past not to run, and initially it wasn't clear whether this was a final decision. The presidents of Egypt and Israel, the king of Jordan and Israel's defense minister all called the Palestinian leader on Thursday, urging him to change his mind, aides said.
The two aides said Abbas would announce his decision in a speech later Thursday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because Abbas has not officially declared his intentions.
Palestinians feel demoralized because the Obama administration has not been able to pressure Israel to halt its construction on lands they claim for a future state. They fear that if U.S. President Barack Obama isn't able to wrest that concession, he won't be able to prod Israel to make other, more sweeping compromises that would be needed to nail down a final peace deal.
The Palestinians say the settlements are undermining their dream of independence by gobbling up large chunks of territory they claim as part of a future state. Some 500,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967.
Late last month, Abbas told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that he would not run for re-election, but backed off after Obama called him and expressed his commitment to Mideast peacemaking, Abbas aides have said.
But days later, in a visit to Israel, Clinton had warm praise for Israel's willingness to somewhat limit construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, deepening Palestinian anxiety.
Abbas' decision aside, it is not clear that elections will be held at all.
Fatah last month unilaterally signed a reconciliation pact with the rival Hamas group under Egyptian mediation. Hamas, however, said it needed another few days to consider the document, and that the Islamist group had reservations about it.
The Hamas and Fatah reconciliation agreement would have ended three years of civil strife and political discord, sparked when the Islamist Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup.
Abbas said earlier this week that his government would hold presidential and parliamentary elections on January 24, a movemement which garnered criticism from Hamas.
Hamas' Damascus-based political leader Khaled Meshal said the move to hold elections regardless of whether a Palestinian reconciliation deal is reached beforehand is "illegal and unlawful."
"Reconciliation first and then we go to elections," he said.
The decision to hold balloting in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza satisfies a legal requirement that Abbas decree elections, but binds him to a vote that many see as unlikely to happen, given Hamas opposition.
Abbas said Palestinian law required him to decree elections for January after Hamas rejected a unity deal that would have postponed elections until June.
"When we didn't reach national reconciliation, we returned to the constitution and the law," Abbas told the Palestine Liberation Organization's central council in Ramallah.
But he did not say how his Palestinian Authority would apply the decree outside the West Bank, the only territory where it holds sway. Although Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state, Israel annexed the territory in 1967 after capturing it and would need to approve voting there.
Under Palestinian law, the election results would be legitimate even if Gazans weren't allowed to participate as long as representatives from Gaza were to appear on ballots.
Political analyst Hani al-Masri said Abbas' decree sought to reaffirm his legitimacy as president while pressuring Hamas into accepting a reconciliation agreement. Abbas was elected in 2005 to a four-year term that was later extended by a year, a move Hamas has refused to recognize.
"Abu Mazen wants to make Hamas come back to the Palestinian political scene, but he wants them to do so after recognizing his legitimacy and leadership, not as competitors and opposition," Masri said, referring to Abbas by his nickname.
Palestinian legislative elections were last held in 2006, when Hamas won a majority.
Fatah members insist the decree was a constitutional requirement and not intended to pressure Hamas, though they say they still want reconciliation.
"The door of reconciliation with our brothers in Hamas is open and we won't close it until the last moment," said leading Fatah member Jibril Rajoub.
Others say elections can only realistically be held after a unity agreement.
"Any real action that is taken by the Palestinians has to be done under an agreement," said Fatah member Qadoura Faris. "Without that, nothing can be done."
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