PLO extends Abbas’s term as president

Backs his demand that Israel freeze all settlements

By Mohammed Daraghmeh
Associated Press / December 17, 2009

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RAMALLAH, West Bank - The Palestine Liberation Organization indefinitely extended Mahmoud Abbas’s term as Palestinian president yesterday and endorsed his refusal to negotiate with Israel unless it freezes all settlement construction.

The decision, which was expected, nonetheless gave an important vote of confidence to the embattled president. Abbas’s inability to reconcile with the rival Hamas movement or wrest concessions from Israel has hurt his popularity among many Palestinians.

The Western-backed Abbas has repeatedly threatened to step down in frustration over the impasse with Israel, while simultaneously hinting that he could be persuaded to remain in office. Yesterday’s vote by the PLO’s Central Council gives Abbas more time to work out his problems.

In an interview published yesterday, Abbas said Israel and the Palestinians could reach a comprehensive peace deal within six months if Israel completely froze settlement construction.

The council endorsed Abbas’s earlier decision to call off presidential and parliamentary elections, which had been set for January. Abbas has said it is impossible to hold the election because of Hamas’s refusal to allow voting in its Gaza Strip stronghold.

The extension, which also applies to parliament members, ensures that Abbas’s government will continue to function until elections can be held in “the entire homeland,’’ said Central Council member Saleh Rafat. It did not set a date for a new vote.

The Palestinians have been divided between two governments since Hamas militants seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s forces in June 2007. Abbas now governs only the West Bank.

Multiple attempts to reconcile the two groups have failed, and Hamas has indicated that it will not agree to new elections until a power-sharing deal is reached with Abbas’s Fatah movement.

In Gaza, Hamas criticized yesterday’s PLO vote as “a confiscation of democracy.’’

“The Central Council is not elected and illegal, and all of its decisions are illegal and not binding on our people,’’ said spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

The council also endorsed Abbas’s refusal to return to negotiations with Israel until it stops construction of Jewish settlements on lands the Palestinians want for a future state. Peace talks broke down a year ago and have not resumed since Benjamin Netanyahu became the prime minister of Israel in March.

Abbas told the Israeli daily Haaretz that he proposed the six-month freeze to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in two recent telephone conversations.

“I suggested to [Barak] three weeks ago that Israel freeze all construction in the settlements for six months, including east Jerusalem,’’ Abbas said in the Haaretz interview. “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.’’

Barak’s office refused to respond to Abbas’s comments. Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said it was time for Abbas to return to talks, rather than dictate preconditions.

Netanyahu has announced a 10-month moratorium on new construction projects in the West Bank. But Palestinians have rejected the move as insufficient, since some building continues and the limitations do not apply to east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital.