By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 6, 2009
JERUSALEM -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, citing dismay over the progress of U.S.-brokered peace initiatives, said Thursday that he does not want to run for reelection when his term ends in January, potentially upending the Obama administration's strategy for the region.
Abbas's announcement follows months of failed attempts by the United States to restart direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. A weekend trip to the region by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accentuated the impasse, as the Obama administration announced that it was scaling back its expectations and Palestinians charged that there is a growing pro-Israel tilt to U.S. policy.
In a 15-minute address on Palestinian television, Abbas remained equivocal as to whether he actually intends to leave office in a matter of weeks. Such a move would throw an already chaotic Palestinian political system into full disarray. But advisers and analysts said it was possible he was merely venting frustration over a dialogue with the United States and Israel that has undercut him politically without any marked progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state.
"I do not wish to run for the upcoming presidential elections," the 74-year-old leader said. "This decision is not for negotiation or maneuver."
The speech, which included a list of detailed steps Abbas says are needed to move peace talks forward, seemed designed to leave options open while exerting pressure on Israel and the Obama administration. The address should "be understood as an urgent scream against the continuing pressure and bending of our arms" by the United States and Israel, Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo said immediately after the president spoke.
After initial optimism that Obama's election would elevate Palestinian interests, Abbas has been steadily frustrated in his hopes for quick results on issues he regards as central, such as a freeze on the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Instead, his political standing has declined, as decisions made in consultation with the United States proved unpopular locally while still failing to produce anticipated Israeli concessions.
"We are at a crossroads," Abbas said at the start of his speech. "Month after month and year after year, we have seen nothing but complacency and procrastination." He added that he was particularly "surprised" in recent days when Clinton praised Israel for an offer on settlement construction that fell well short of Palestinian expectations.
Abbas warned that Arab anger over Israeli home demolitions in Jerusalem and recent clashes near the al-Aqsa mosque threatened a "religious war."
Clinton, asked about Abbas's announcement, said that during a recent meeting with him, "we talked about his own political future. I look forward to working with President Abbas in any new capacity."
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declined to comment on the announcement.
Abbas's speech followed a day in which Palestinian officials and political groups lobbied him to reconsider a decision he has been mulling for at least several days. Abbas was strongly endorsed Thursday by the Palestinian Liberation Organization's central committee, which "rejected" his possible retirement. Palestinian television then showed a long, laudatory video montage. Local press reported calls from Egyptian, Jordanian and other officials to urge him to stay in office.
The chief advocate among Palestinians for a negotiated settlement with the Israelis, Abbas is the most prominent remaining member of the group that founded the PLO along with Yasser Arafat. Abbas took over in 2005, shortly after Arafat's death.
With no clear successors, his departure could spark a broader debate over whether Palestinians should pursue continued dialogue with Israel, return to the violent methods advocated by groups such as the Islamist group Hamas, or give up on the idea of a Palestinian state and demand civil rights inside a binational Israel.
After nearly two decades of scant progress toward statehood under the 1993 Oslo peace accords, "maybe the president has come to a moment of truth" that the two-state solution is not viable, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat ventured in an interview on al-Jazeera television.
Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip said Abbas's comments were proof that negotiations with Israel had failed.
Power within Palestinian society is split between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Abbas's Fatah party, which is dominant in the West Bank. Abbas's announcement raises the prospect of a fractious competition for control of Fatah, as well as between Fatah and other Palestinian parties.
Palestinian elections are scheduled for January, but there is widespread doubt that they will take place -- and no certainty over who will take control of Palestinian governance, and on what basis, if Abbas's term expires in January without a fresh vote. Hamas, which took over Gaza by force of arms two years ago, has said elections should not take place until a unity pact can be signed between the main Palestinian factions.
Among Palestinian leaders, Marwan Barghouti is considered the most popular and charismatic -- but he is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in organizing violent attacks as the head of a militia during the second intifada, which began in 2000. The prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is credited with reforming the Palestinian Authority's finances and security forces, but he is not considered to have a broad popular standing.
Special correspondents Samuel Sockol and Sufian Taha contributed to this report.