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.
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.
Renewed US-led peace efforts afoot?
Some analysts say that Abbas's willingness to stay on indicates that there are some renewed US-led peace efforts afoot. Officially, the stalemate has continued in recent weeks as Abbas rejected as insufficient Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's declaration of a ten-month settlement freeze. But backchannels, one prominent Palestinian political writer says, are buzzing.
Khalil Shaheen, a columnist for the al-Ayyam newspaper, says that the Arab press is full of "leaks" that suggest a propitious movement in international attempts to get the Israeli and Palestinian leaders talking again.
"There are leaks about an American initiative to push it forward. I think there is something going on under the table. The Egyptians, the French, the US, and Israel are working on a formula to bring Abbas down from the top of the tree," Mr. Shaheen says, a reference to the Palestinian leader's conditions for restarting negotiations. These include a total freeze in all settlement growth not just in the West Bank, but in East Jerusalem as well. Israel considers all of Jerusalem its united, sovereign capital and has rejected Palestinian and international calls to curb building there. Israel occupied the territory in the 1967 Middle East war, and later annexed it.
"He's serious. If the Israelis and Americans don't meet these conditions, he will quit. But if they can find a way to keep him on the scene, he will stay," Shaheen says.
Hamas rejects extension for Abbas
Hamas on Wednesday issued a statement rejecting the extension of Abbas's tenure.
In the statement, according the Ma'an News Agency, Hamas says that what's holding up reconciliation between the two is Abbas's refusal to release detainees and to enable Palestinian elections to be held in mid-2010.
"It is a new trick meant to grant Abbas legal status," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said of the extension of Abbas's tenure."Abbas's term has ended, and no one has the right to extend it."
Egyptian mediators have been trying for several months to get Hamas and Fatah to agree to a reconciliation deal. Each side blames the other's intransigence, and says that without such an agreement, nothing – including elections – will move forward.
"The only exit from this crisis is to agree with Hamas, but it isn't happening," says Fares. "Fatah has signed the Egyptian documents and Hamas has some reservations, over them, so they won't sign. From how it looks from here, the Hamas side, has become more aggressive in their position."