- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

TEL AVIV — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday postponed legislative elections indefinitely just seven weeks before the scheduled vote, reflecting growing disorder within his ruling Fatah party and drawing criticism from the rival Hamas party.

Palestinians haven’t elected a parliament in more than nine years, and the delay from the planned July 17 date casts a shadow over Mr. Abbas’ efforts to promote democratic reform within the Palestinian government.

The reform is a key requirement of the U.S.-sponsored “road map” peace blueprint.

“The problems are not with Hamas. The problems are inside Fatah,” said Ghazi Haniniyeh, a Fatah parliamentarian. “It is very difficult for Fatah to decide who will lead it.”

Hamas’ leadership in the Gaza Strip condemned the delay, complaining that Mr. Abbas violated a commitment that was a key element in a pact between Mr. Abbas and Hamas.

Hamas, the leading sponsor of suicide bombings during the four-year uprising against Israel, stopped short of declaring its cease-fire over.

Hamas halted attacks against Israel and agreed to participate in elections as a result of its deal with Mr. Abbas.

“The situation is not so normal and easy now,” said Ghazi Hamad, the editor of Al Risala, a weekly newspaper affiliated with Hamas. “Abu Mazen didn’t prove he was strong and that he respected his word. This will create problems for Abu Mazen.”

Mr. Abbas is usually referred to as Abu Mazen in the Middle East.

Mr. Abbas, who made the announcement in the West Bank city of Ramallah, had insisted in recent weeks that elections would go ahead as scheduled, despite growing calls for a delay by Fatah politicians concerned that the fractured party was headed toward an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Islamic militants.

Hamas has notched a string of key victories over Mr. Abbas’ party in several rounds of municipal voting in recent months, exploiting Palestinian frustration with corruption and paralysis within the Fatah party.

The successes have built momentum for Hamas ahead of the parliamentary vote and stoked infighting among rival factions in Fatah.

Fatah, which dominates the ruling Palestinian Authority, blamed the voting delay on technical problems.

Mr. Abbas and lawmakers are still bickering over a revision of the electoral law governing the selection of the next parliament.

The Palestinian leader favors a national vote for competing candidate slates from the rival parties, but other lawmakers want to keep the district-based system used in 1996.

The district-based system would favor Fatah.

“There is no politics in this,” said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian peace negotiator and member of parliament. “The postponement of the elections came as a result of our inability to complete our legal deliberations. As soon as the law is completed, we need 60 days to hold elections.”

The Web edition of Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper quoted Palestinians as saying the elections would be held between November and January, but Mr. Erekat said it could be earlier.

Mr. Abbas announced the delay less than two weeks after his White House summit with President Bush, an appearance that burnished his credentials back home as a leader capable of taking the Palestinian case to world leaders outside of the Middle East.

The visit marked the Palestinian return to the stage of world diplomacy after former leader Yasser Arafat, who died last November, spent the last few years snubbed by the White House and surrounded by Israeli forces at his Ramallah headquarters.

Following an extensive international diplomatic tour, Mr. Abbas returned to the region ailing both physically and politically.

Last week, he underwent an angioplasty in Jordan to unclog blocked arteries, while back home, gunmen from his Fatah party rioted outside of the government compounds.

The delay announced yesterday all but ensures that Palestinian elections will not take place before Israel removes Jewish settlers from Gaza and four West Bank settlements in mid-August.

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