RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinian president said Thursday he does not want to run for another term in the January elections, blaming a stalemate in Mideast peace talks on Israel and the United States.
In a televised speech to the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas said he has told his "brothers" in the Fatah movement of his "desire not to run in the upcoming elections."
But Abbas' careful wording left room for the possibility that he could be persuaded to change his mind, especially if he perceives the United States as backing his position on demanding an end to Israeli construction in West Bank settlements.
Abbas' tenuous internal political position would make it difficult for him to agree to peace talks without a settlement construction freeze. His Hamas rivals would likely jump on a capitulation to embarrass him.
The Palestinian leader's decision, reported earlier in the day by his aides, had set off a flurry of calls from regional leaders, with the presidents of Egypt and Israel, the king of Jordan and Israel's defense minister all urging him change his mind.
About 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians say these settlements take up large chunks of their hoped-for state, undermining their dream of independence. Also, about 180,000 Israelis live in Jerusalem neighborhoods built around the eastern sector of the city, which Palestinians claim for their capital.
Abbas has threatened before not to run for re-election in the Jan. 24 balloting. In his speech Thursday evening, he said, "I have told my brothers in the (Fatah) executive committee and central committee of my desire not to run."
He said at first, he was encouraged by the Obama administration's policy, but then "we were surprised by its embracing of the Israeli position."
He said settlement construction must stop, but "Israel and especially its current government rejects this."
Late last month, Abbas told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he would not run, but recanted after President Barack Obama called him and expressed his commitment to Mideast peacemaking, Abbas' aides said.
In the following days, Clinton sought to clarify the American position, first offering warm praise for Israel's offer to somewhat limit settlement construction in the West Bank, then telling Arab leaders that the U.S. wants to see this construction stopped "forever."
After Abbas' speech Thursday, Clinton praised his leadership in working toward the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.
She ignored a question about whether she would try to persuade Abbas to stay on and said: "I look forward to working with President Abbas in any new capacity to help achieve this goal."
Abbas' decision aside, it is not clear that elections will be held at all.
Abbas' West Bank government does not control the Gaza Strip, which the Islamic militant group Hamas seized in June 2007. Hamas has said it would not participate in elections.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Abbas' reluctance to run for re-election was "a message of reproach to his friends, the Americans and the Israelis."
"We advise him to ... face the Palestinian people and tell them frankly that the path of negotiations has failed. Halt negotiations with the occupation and take practical steps toward reconciliation."