Howard Schneider
The Washington Post
November 23, 2009 - 1:00am

To keep the Palestinian Authority government working after its term expires in January, Palestinians are turning to an unelected group of political insiders instead of holding new elections, according to Palestinian officials and outside analysts.

The Palestine Liberation Organization's Central Council -- more than 100 political officials and activists, labor federation leaders and others -- is slated to meet in December to authorize Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to remain the movement's chief political figure and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to continue running the day-to-day affairs of government in Ramallah.

The session will resolve an immediate political problem while maintaining an air of legality around a Palestinian government that relies on hundreds of millions of dollars in outside aid. Abbas's term expires Jan. 24, but election officials have ruled that a planned vote cannot take place while the Islamist Hamas movement rules the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority, dominated by Abbas's Fatah movement, holds political power only in the West Bank.

Abbas has said he does not want to run for reelection, but the council's endorsement will mean that he can continue as the Palestinian figurehead until peace talks resume or a longer-term plan is worked out to pick his successor.

"From a legal point of view, there is not a big problem. It is a situation that needs the intervention of the PLO," said Qais Abdul Karim, a member of the PLO Central Council who is also familiar with the discussions inside the PLO's top body, the executive committee. "It is a substitute for democratic elections, but it is the only way to go. At least it represents the political consensus of the PLO, and legitimacy emanates from the PLO's status."

Though often in the background as the Palestinian Authority took on more responsibility in the wake of the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel, the PLO maintains a sort of underlying authority. Founded in the 1960s as an umbrella for a variety of Palestinian political groups, it has been acknowledged by Israel and internationally as the ultimate representative of the Palestinians -- those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip areas slated to form a future state as well as the millions living as refugees in neighboring countries.

Hamas grew up as an Islamist rival to the late Yasser Arafat's nationalist Fatah party and never joined the PLO. Hamas won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian legislature in a 2006 vote and seized full control of the Gaza Strip a year later. The legislature has been dormant since.

Although the December meeting may resolve one pressing question about Palestinian governance, it will not fully clarify Abbas's situation or do much to relieve a deep stalemate in the U.S.-moderated peace process.

Abbas, whose multiple roles include chairman of the PLO, remains a troubled politician with somewhat opaque plans.

After a dramatic speech two weeks ago in which he announced that he would not run for reelection when his term expired in January, he embarked on what seemed like a campaign swing. He appeared at a series of rallies in the West Bank, the government-run television channel was full of tributes, and clan leaders published tribal-style loyalty oaths in local newspapers.

But Palestinian, Israeli, U.S. and other officials close to the situation say he remains in deep turmoil over what to do -- frustrated by the lack of progress toward a peace agreement, feeling undercut politically by a U.S. administration that has pushed him to make decisions that were unpopular among Palestinians, and, at 74, fatigued. Yet he is also unwilling to walk away from what could be the culmination of his career.

Palestinian, Israeli, U.S. and other international leaders seem to agree that if peace efforts are to progress in the foreseeable future, Abbas will need to rebuild his political standing among Palestinians as a prelude to renewed negotiations with Israel, and that he needs help doing it. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in particular has been urged by the United States and some of his top security officials to look for ways to bolster the Palestinian leader and convince him that it is worthwhile to stick around.


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