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Abbas puts ball in US court

RAMALLAH, Nov 6 – By saying he would not seek a new term, Mahmud Abbas ramped up pressure on Washington over Israeli settlements and raised the stakes in stalled US peace efforts, observers said on Friday.

When the Palestinian president announced late on Thursday that he would not seek re-election, the beleaguered leader insisted the move was "not a stunt.

But others beg to differ.

"Abu Mazen’s announcement was a major manoeuvre that is going to lead to quite an adventure," the Palestinian columnist Hani al-Masri said.

"He believes in the path of negotiations, but he cannot continue with them without getting something from the Americans," he added, referring to Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze to precede new peace talks.

"If no one responds to this manoeuvre, then maybe Abbas will pursue other options," he added.

These could include stepping down as president of the Palestinian Authority or as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which could leave a major power vaccuum as Abbas has no obvious successor.

Abbas’s move came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised an Israeli offer for a limited ease in settlement construction as "unprecedented" after months of demanding a full freeze.

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Although she later backtracked, observers said that Washington was signalling that it was switching tactics and instead of pressuring Israel to stop settlement activity — which the Jewish state has steadfastly refused to do — it would now pressure the Palestinian side.

Abbas, who felt he had done everything that the international community had demanded of him and received nothing in return, aimed to put the pressure on the United States, analysts say.

"He is again using his candidacy as a card in the negotiations, and he has placed the ball in the Americans’ court," said George Jaqman, head of the Institute for Democratic Studies in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Washington has made getting an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal a cornerstone of its Middle East policy and to that end needs Abbas, a moderate who renounced armed struggle decades ago and is in strong favour of a two-state solution.

Despite his announcement, Abbas could still seek another term and cite public pressure to stay on as the reason for his change of heart, although it remains unclear whether the elections that he called for January will be held at all, as the Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza has rejected them.

Hours before his announcement the PLO and his Fatah party said he still enjoys their full support, and the PLO’s powerful executive committee openly rejected his decision not to seek another term.

"Can president Abbas go back on his decision? The answer is yes," says Naji Sharrab, a professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.

"Historical experience in Third World countries like Palestine suggests that he could go back on his decision under pressure from the people, from the executive committee or from others."

In the meantime, the move may be part of a larger political shift on the part of the Palestinians towards trying to place responsibility for ending the conflict on the international community instead of risking further rounds of inconclusive negotiations.

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"President Mahmud Abbas represents the moderate option," Sharrab said.

"I think he was sending a message to America and Israel that this option faces many challenges and many dangers, and that others are going to have to deal with the results of that."

That approach depends on the United States and Israel responding to Abbas’s latest move with further concessions on the settlements issue.

Israel has not officially commented on Abbas’s announcement, but officials and local media said the Jewish state was keen for him to remain in office.

Meanwhile Clinton did not appear alarmed by his announcement.

"I look forward to working with president Abbas in any new capacity," she said.

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