The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, last night chided the US and announced that he did not want to stand for another term in elections officially scheduled for January.
The surprise move reflects deep disappointment in the moderate West Bank-based Palestinian leadership at the lack of US progress in persuading Israel's premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, to end the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Although Mr Netanyahu says he is ready for negotiations with Mr Abbas, the Palestinian leadership has insisted that a freeze is needed as a sign of good faith if such negotiations are to have any real credibility.
Mr Abbas declared he was "surprised" that the Obama administration had "favoured" Israel in arguments over the re-launch of peace talks. He has expressed deep dismay in private over praise last weekend by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for Mr Netanyahu' s "unprecedented" offer of "restraint" in settlement building.
Mr Netanyahu has offered to temporarily halt new authorisations for settlement construction, but only if work on 3,000 housing units goes ahead.
Palestinian negotiators argue that this would lead to an increase in settlement construction over the next two years. Mr Netanyahu has also made clear he has no intention of slowing down construction of Jewish homes in Arab East Jerusalem, something Mr Abbas singled out for criticism last night.
Mrs Clinton has since sought to "clarify" her earlier remarks by acknowledging that Israel's offer had fallen well short of US proposals. But although the freeze was a US demand, Mrs Clinton has since been urging Mr Abbas to begin talks with Israel without "preconditions."
In his short but dramatic televised speech last night Mr Abbas strongly criticised Hamas for pursuing its own interests at the expense of solving "the problems of the Palestinian people". He accused Israel of violating international agreements, pointing out that he had repeatedly urged Hamas to abide by those same agreements. "How can I and the international community accept less than that from the Israeli government?" he asked.
Addressing the Israeli public he added: "Peace is much more important than any government coalition, especially if it might lead a country to an uncertain future. Peace is possible. I have always believed in this."
The immediate practical effect of Mr Abbas's stance is likely to be limited as most Palestinian politicians doubt that elections will take place on Mr Abbas's designated date of 24 January. Instead they are not expected before June at the earliest, largely because Hamas has so far refused to sign up to an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement with Mr Abbas's Fatah faction.
Mr Abbas rejected appeals from senior Palestinian Liberation Organisation colleagues – and, reportedly, from Israeli leaders – to reconsider. But while he insisted he was not engaging in "bargaining or a manoeuvre", some officials believe he has left himself room to change his mind. Nevertheless his wording would make it difficult to do so without humiliation unless the US substantially hardens its position, both by securing a tougher settlement freeze and by insisting to Israel that any peace negotiations cover all the core issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees.Reuse content