RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian election officials on Thursday recommended calling off January's presidential vote, a step that could result in embattled President Mahmoud Abbas staying in office indefinitely.
Abbas, who must approve the recommendation, had vowed not to run for re-election because of his frustration with stalled peace efforts. But few think he will resign outright if no election is held.
Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Palestinian election commission, blamed the rival Hamas militant group for holding up the vote. He said Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, had refused to cooperate with election workers, making it impossible to hold the Jan. 24 election.
"We planned to go to Gaza to figure out how we can conduct elections there," Nasser said. "In the meantime, we received an answer from Hamas that we are not welcome in Gaza. It is clear now that we cannot hold an election in Gaza."
Nasser did not propose a new date for the balloting, in effect recommending that the election be postponed indefinitely.
Abbas was in Jordan Thursday and did not immediately comment. Palestinian officials said he might send the decision to the PLO Central Committee, which meets next month and would be expected to endorse the postponement.
Abbas told his people a week ago that he did not want to run for another term, but many of his backers believed then that he was posturing to seek additional support for his policies. The recommendation by his election commission, just days after his announcement, has reinforced the view that Abbas did not really want to step down.
"President Abbas will make the appropriate decision after he returns," said his spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh. "Hamas' decision to ban the election commission from working in Gaza proves that Hamas is not eager to reach national unity and reconciliation."
The Palestinians have been divided between two governments since Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in 2007 from Abbas' Fatah movement. Abbas' Western-backed government controls only the West Bank. The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state in both territories, located on opposite sides of Israel, with east Jerusalem as their capital.
Abbas set the election last month after the latest round of reconciliation efforts with Hamas failed. Hamas has repeatedly said it would not cooperate with the vote.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his group opposed the election because it was declared unilaterally by one side. "Without reconciliation, there will be no election."
Two senior Fatah officials said Abbas has not yet made a decision, but it is all but certain there will not be an election in January. They said the party is divided about whether to pursue further reconciliation talks with Hamas, or eventually to hold elections in the West Bank only. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal policy discussions.
The rivalry with Hamas is just one of Abbas' many problems. Last week, Abbas said he would not contest the election, citing his frustration with the lack of progress in peace efforts with Israel.
Since then, both Palestinian supporters and members of the international community, including Israel, have urged him to reconsider. The delay in the election will likely give Abbas the pretext he needs to stay in office.
The Palestinians have refused to resume peace talks with Israel unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freezes construction in Jewish settlements built on lands claimed by the Palestinians.
Netanyahu says he's ready to restart negotiations immediately, but he has refused to halt settlement construction.
Palestinian leaders have also privately expressed frustration with President Barack Obama, saying he has backed away from initial demands for an absolute freeze in settlement construction.
Even if Abbas stays in office, the Fatah officials said he would not open negotiations with Netanyahu, despite pleas from international leaders to do so.
There was no immediate Israeli reaction to the election commission's announcement Thursday.