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Q&A: Palestinian political turmoil

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
There is uncertainty about how the Palestinian Authority will resolve the issues of much-needed elections

The Palestinian political situation is looking increasingly confused. Badly-needed elections have been postponed because of a split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. To make matters worse, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, has said he does not want to stand for re-election. How did the Palestinians get to this complicated impasse?

When were the elections due?

Mr Abbas called the elections for 24 January 2010.

Mr Abbas was elected for four years in January 2005. Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections and began its four-year term in January 2006. When his term as president officially ran out, Mr Abbas argued he could legally stay in post for an extra year because the law calls for presidential and legislative elections to be held simultaneously. Hamas has argued he was illegitimate after January 2009 and stopped recognising his authority.

On 24 January 2010, the PLC's term was due to run out, and Mr Abbas's argument for the legitimacy of his own position would no longer have worked.

Why were the elections postponed?

The Palestinian Electoral Commission said it would be impossible to hold a vote in January because Hamas, which controls Gaza, is refusing to take part.

When might they be held?

A proposed reconciliation deal between Mr Abbas's Fatah party and Hamas includes a deal to hold elections by June 2010. Hamas has so far refused to sign up.

The Islamic movement has criticized Mr Abbas for staying on beyond his term, but after 24 January it will be doing the same thing. Hamas is in a difficult position; its poll ratings are weak. There is a risk it could lose elections if it agrees to them. But if it refuses to co-operate, it loses the basis of its claim to legitimacy - that it is democratically elected.

If Hamas continues to reject elections there have been suggestions that the PA could carry them out in the West Bank alone. But this goes against Palestinian law, and would further formalize the division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, something most Palestinians recognize would only harm their cause.

So how is Mr Abbas staying in power?

The Palestinian Authority was created by the Palestine Liberation Organisation - the umbrella body which represents Palestinians (including refugees in the diaspora) to the rest of the world.

In Palestinian politics, the PLO is a higher, more powerful, body than the PA. Mr Abbas is also its head. The PA's decision-making body - the Palestinian National Council - has made clear it wants him to stay in power.

On 16 December 2009, the PLO voted to extend Mr Abbas's term, and also that of the PLC, until elections can be held. There is a precedent for this - the late leader Yasser Arafat's term was extended in the absence of elections.

Hamas is not a member of the PLO, which chose to recognise Israel in the 1993 Oslo Accords - a stance to which Hamas is strongly opposed.

Why is Abbas saying he won't stand in elections?

He and his aides have spoken of growing frustration with US attempts to restart peace talks with Israel. They say the US has failed to persuade Israel even to comply with its own existing commitments under the 2003 Road Map peace plan, particularly on freezing all settlement activity in the West Bank. Many in the region initially interpreted Mr Abbas's announcement as brinkmanship, aimed at pressuring the US and Israel. But aides to the president say he and others in the PA are despairing for the future of the negotiations, to which they have been committed for close to two decades.

Could Mr Abbas resign?

If Mr Abbas were to resign before elections are held, under the law he would be replaced by the speaker of the PLC, Aziz Dweik, who is from Hamas. For this reason his resignation would create major problems for the US and Israel, which refuse to deal with Hamas. It would also be an extremely unpalatable outcome for Mr Abbas and his Fatah party.

Who would win if elections were held?

Polls are only an indicator, but Hamas has lost ground it gained during the Israeli offensive in Gaza last December and January, and is now well behind Fatah in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Abbas, however, has angered Palestinians in the past year. He was slow to condemn the Israeli assault in Gaza and criticized Hamas as the bombs fell. He was blamed by many for the initial failure of the Palestinian Authority to push the Goldstone report, heavily critical of Israel's conduct in the violence, forward at the UN.

In October 2009, his poll ratings were well behind those of his party, and were level with Ismail Haniya, his Hamas rival.

However, even more Palestinians said they would not vote, suggesting wider despair and frustration with the Palestinian leadership.

Is there an alternative to Abbas?

There is no obvious successor to Mr Abbas as the Fatah party's presidential candidate.

The Fatah grassroots leader Marwan Barghouthi has often been proposed as a potential charismatic unifying figure. But he is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for attacks on Israelis, although he protests his innocence. His poll ratings are similar to those of Mr Abbas and Mr Haniya.

The PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has very strong relations with the international community, and has been widely credited for recent improvements in the economic and security conditions in the West Bank. However, he lacks charisma, and although appointed by Mr Abbas, is not a member of Fatah and has no political base.

Why the Hamas-Fatah division?

There are deep ideological differences between the two sides. Fatah backed the Oslo Accords, under which the PLO renounced violence and recognised the state of Israel - Hamas will do neither.

Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, but Western countries and donors refused to deal with it. A Fatah-Hamas unity government was formed the following year, but fell apart. Street fighting broke out in Gaza, which resulted in Hamas expelling Fatah security forces from the Gaza Strip.

Hamas now controls Gaza, while the Fatah-dominated PA has worked hard to stamp out Hamas military - and much political - activity in the West Bank.

What about the Palestinian Legislative Council?

The PLC has not met since June 2007. In June 2006, after the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured in Gaza, Israel arrested many of its members who were affiliated with Hamas.

Since relations between Fatah and Hamas broke down in 2007, the two factions have been unable to agree what to do about the way the absence of the Hamas members would sway the voting.

Mr Abbas has essentially been ruling by presidential decree. Hamas argues that he cannot call elections without the PLC's approval. It also does not recognise moves such as the appointment by Mr Abbas, without the approval of the PLC, of Mr Fayyad as prime minister. According to Hamas, the PA's prime minister remains Ismail Haniya, who was in the post before June 2007.



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