Pressure grows on Abbas to stay on

Mahmoud Abbas was on Friday urged to revoke his decision not to run in the upcoming Palestinian presidential election, amid concern that his withdrawal from the political scene could deal a fatal blow to the fast-diminishing prospects for peace in the region.

Leaders from Mr Abbas’s own Fatah party and from the Palestine Liberation Organisation said they were trying to convince him to stay on. Fatah activists also staged rallies in support of their president in at least three towns in the occupied West Bank.

Several international leaders – including Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, and Miguel Moratinos, Spain’s foreign minister – were reported to have telephoned Mr Abbas asking him to rethink his decision.

Their calls were echoed by a number of Israeli politicians, such as Shimon Peres, the president, and a former counterpart to Mr Abbas in peace negotiations. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, described the Palestinian leader as the "best partner" for the Jewish state.

The flurry of activity followed an announcement by Mr Abbas on Thursday night that he would not seek re-election as president of the Palestinian Authority, a post he has held since 2005. His speech included sharp criticism of the current Israeli government, and disappointment with the recent policy shift of the US administration, which moved to lessen the pressure on Israel over its settlement policy in the occupied West Bank.

Speaking after Mr Abbas's announcement, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said she looked forward to working with the veteran leader "in any capacity". Ms Clinton had earlier been the cause of major dismay among Palestinian officials, including Mr Abbas, when she described Israel's latest concessions on settlements as "unprecedented" even though they stopped short of a complete settlement freeze.

Mr Abbas stressed that his announcement was not intended as a political “manoeuvre” to force a change of US or Israeli policy. However, with no obvious candidate around to replace Mr Abbas, and amid uncertainty whether the January election can in fact go ahead as planned, there was hope among his supporters on Friday that the president would carry on after all.

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Fatah official, told the Reuters news agency: "Between now and the election date, we hope Abbas will reconsider."

In spite of the frustration felt by many Palestinians over the lack of political progress during Mr Abbas’s tenure, that hope was also shared by some voters in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. “I was sad when I saw his speech. I want him as president, and I want him to run again,” said Ibrahim Salahat, the owner of a restaurant off the city’s main square.

Many said they believed Mr Abbas had made his move out of frustration with the current US administration, adding that president Barack Obama had disappointed their hopes for a more even-handed US approach in the region.

“When Barack Obama was elected the people were excited and thought that something was going to happen,” said George Masri, another Bethlehem resident. “But the Americans have not helped him [Mr Abbas] at all. He had no success but it was not his fault.”

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