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Palestinians Head for Political Showdown

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is staking his political future and the future of the Arab-Israeli peace process on his announced plan to call early elections. The decision is aimed at ending a nearly year-long stalemate over who governs the Palestinians, Mr. Abbas' Fatah movement, or the Islamic-militant group Hamas. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from our Jerusalem bureau.

After months of fruitless negotiations on forming a unity government and sporadic violence, Mahmoud Abbas issued a direct challenge to Hamas, saying he would call early elections to decide who governs the Palestinian territories - Fatah or Hamas.

Mr. Abbas, who heads Fatah, was elected Palestinian President two years ago. Hamas won parliamentary elections last January, leading international donors to suspend aid, because the Islamic militant group refuses to recognize Israel. As a result, Hamas has been unable to pay government salaries. Tensions have escalated as violence between Hamas and Fatah has spiked in recent weeks.

Hamas leaders are calling Mr. Abbas' decision for new elections illegal and effectively a coup.

However, Mr. Abbas has not dismissed the current government, and he has not set a date for polling.

Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah, says the Palestinian president has left the door open for a last-minute compromise.

"If he wants to call new elections, legally, he has to issue a presidential decree, he has not done that yet," said Jarbawi. "So, there is time, actually, for more talks on a national unity government. I think, what Abbas did is, basically, to say that 'I am serious now, and if these talks do not produce a national unity government, I am going for elections.'"

Mr. Abbas' call for new elections follows increased violence between Hamas and Fatah, especially in the Gaza Strip, where there have been multiple assassination attempts by gunmen trying to kill leading members of both factions. The violence is raising fears of an all-out civil war in the Palestinian territories.

But, Ali Jarbawi says, for now, those fears are overblown.

"I do not think we are going to go into a civil war, but I think we might end up with a war between factions, and there is a difference between both. I think the factions, basically Fatah and Hamas, are heading towards confrontation to a factional war, but a civil war, I do not think we have the capability to go into it."

Mr. Abbas says, if the elections take place they will be for both the parliament and the presidency. He also says he might not run again, leaving it up to a divided Fatah leadership to fight both parliamentary and presidential elections against what most observers say is a more unified Hamas movement.

Israeli policy-makers are watching the developments with caution. Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center, says Israelis want a resolution of the Palestinian political crisis as much as Palestinians do.

"Israel needs a decision. Israel needs to negotiate with somebody. If that involves elections again, or a decision made, unfortunately, through military confrontation or civil war, that in the end will be the best for Israel - to have a partner that Israel can talk to. If elections are called, I think it will be tough for Abbas - his own party is in disarray, and so forth," he said. "But I think he will have a lot of help from the international community, and, I think, Palestinians will have second thoughts about their previous vote for Hamas."

Since they voted for Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections, many Palestinians have seen their standard of living drop precipitously. Donor aid has been cut, and Israel has suspended the transfer of tax and customs revenue it normally turns over to the Palestinian Authority. An estimated 165,000 Palestinian civil servants have only received a fraction of their wages since March.

With the Palestinian economy in free fall, Mahmoud Abbas, universally described as the most cautious of politicians, appears to be gambling that Palestinians have had enough of hardship, and might be willing to back his call for a unity government, or give a renewed mandate to Fatah and its policies. Now, Palestinians, and the rest of the world, must wait to see if Hamas and its supporters decide to call Mr. Abbas' bluff, or join a renewed effort at political reconciliation.