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Why the PLO extended Abbas's term

Some say the PLO's move Wednesday to allow Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to stay in office beyond January was aimed at salvaging the PLO's legitimacy. Hamas rejects the extension.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / December 16, 2009

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, during a meeting with the Lithuania Foreign Minister at Abbas' office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday.

Majdi Mohammed/AP

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Jerusalem

Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), was given a green light Wednesday to stay in office beyond next January, when his term was due to expire for the second time.

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The Central Council of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) voted Tuesday to extend indefinitely the tenure of Mahmoud Abbas. The decision was seen as a stop-gap measure aimed at avoiding a potential collapse of the PA.

Some view the extension as primarily a political move on the part of heavyweights in Fatah, the PLO's main political faction, to stave off political crisis and questions over Abbas's legitimacy. According to the Palestinian Constitution, Abbas's term expires in late January.

But others view this as an indication that Abbas's alarm bells to the international community – which he rang last month with a vow that he would not seek office again and might soon resign – are being heeded, and are hoping for further developments.

"The decision of the Central Council was made because we don't want to face any legal problems or legitimacy vacuum," explains Qaddoura Fares, a senior Fatah official in Ramallah. "There's a lot of pressure on Abbas to stop functioning and not take any other decisions as president," he says.

Some of Abbas's critics, most prominently Hamas, note that Abbas's four-year term expired this past January of 2009.

His term was extended then by members of the non-functioning Palestinian Legislative Council, but Hamas says that was illegitimate. Abbas was elected in January 2005 after the death of his predecessor, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"This decision was taken, and Abbas is agreeing to stay on, because of his feeling of responsibility, because there is no alternative. He doesn't want to leave the authority in a state of chaos. So he will stay on at least until Hamas and Fatah can agree on a date for elections," Fares says.

Hamas, which rejected Abbas's call for an election in January, says that the extension is largely a dictate of Fatah – and therefore, unconstitutional.

Abbas said in Ramallah on Tuesday that a peace deal could be reached in six months if Israel were completely to freeze construction of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that he made that offer to Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister. "During this time, we can get back to the table and even complete talks on a final status agreement. I have yet to receive an answer," Abbas said in the interview in Wednesday's paper.

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