Palestinian leaders to extend President Mahmoud Abbas's term indefinitely

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By Howard Schneider
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -- The Palestine Liberation Organization's ruling Central Council gathered here this week to extend the soon-to-expire term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a session that promised to say as much about the drift and division in Palestinian politics as about the 74-year-old leader's standing.

Delegates to the roughly 120-member body, representing a collection of political parties, labor unions and other organizations, said that with little hope of elections soon, they will authorize Abbas to stay in office indefinitely. The Hamas movement's control of the Gaza Strip has forced the cancellation of an election set for January, when Abbas's term ends, and little progress has been made toward a reconciliation agreement that would allow the vote to be rescheduled.

Delegates said they also plan to endorse Abbas's policy of refusing to start new peace negotiations with Israel without a comprehensive freeze on the expansion of its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- areas that the Palestinians expect to be part of their future state.

"The Israelis are supporting something we cannot accept, and Abbas cannot retreat," said Nabil Amr, a council member and former Palestinian Authority ambassador to Egypt.

The Central Council meeting will resolve the immediate problem of continuing Palestinian governance -- at least in the West Bank, where the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority holds power. But Hamas, a militant Islamist group, is not part of the PLO, an umbrella organization formed in the 1960s that still serves as an important arbiter of Palestinian interests.

Abbas has said he will not run for reelection, but in an opening address Tuesday he gave no indication that he plans to resign or leave the stage anytime soon. To the contrary, he spelled out again what he feels is needed for negotiations to resume: a halt to Israeli settlement construction and a recognition by Israel that the territory it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war forms the basis for talks about setting a final border.

"When Israel stops settlement activity for a specific period, and when it recognizes the borders we are calling for, there would be nothing to prevent us from going to negotiations," Abbas said.

There was little new substance in Abbas's remarks, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said he worries that the Palestinian leader has made the refusal of new negotiations a "strategic choice."

"There is a real concern now that saying no is a deliberate strategy," said Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev. "They have become rejectionists out of a desire to not be forced to make concessions."

The Israelis have said they are ready to start negotiations without preconditions.

Abbas, who negotiated with previous Israeli governments as settlement construction continued, hardened his stance after the Obama administration pushed for a settlement freeze but was rebuffed by Netanyahu, who would agree only to a partial moratorium.

PLO delegates said the experience of the past few months -- the hopes raised by Barack Obama's election and the frustration over the lack of subsequent progress -- has left them groping for a new strategy.

"Negotiate? What for? For the sake of negotiations?" asked Adnan Garib, one of a handful of Central Council members allowed by Israel to travel to Ramallah from Gaza for the meeting. "We have to have a clear frame of reference" before restarting talks.


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