By TOVAH LAZAROFF
Israel and the international community signalled new optimism on Thursday that the deadlock that has prevented a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may soon be broken, after PA officials indicated that elections scheduled for January 24 would not go ahead.
Abbas had said he would not run in the elections, meaning he was coming to the end of his period in power. With the vote off, however, Abbas had become a viable partner again, Israeli and foreign officials said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy phoned Abbas on Thursday to discuss conditions for the renewal of the diplomatic process. And while it is understood that the US does not anticipate substantive negotiations resuming in the next two weeks, there is renewed optimism that the path to new talks can be cleared.
The talks on Monday at the White House between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu focused heavily on the Palestinian issue, with extensive discussion on the "practical steps" both Israel and the Palestinians could take to enable a renewed dialogue, and to boost the prospects of such a dialogue bearing fruit.
Abbas has been demanding a full settlement freeze as a precondition for further talks - something rejected by Israel and the US. Abbas had cited the US failure to obtain such a freeze as one of the factors in his decision not to seek reelection.
Both Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres had publicly called on Abbas not to quit.
In their phone conversation on Thursday, Sarkozy, who met with Netanyahu on Wednesday, "underscored the urgency of restarting the Middle East peace process and discussed, in light of his recent international contacts, the conditions that would allow a rapid resumption of negotiations," the Elysee said.
After a week of intense lobbying efforts by world leaders, who called on Abbas to stay on, Palestinian election officials on Thursday recommended calling off the presidential vote, a step that would allow him to remain in office for the foreseeable future.
Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Palestinian Election Commission, blamed Hamas for holding up the vote.
He said Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, had refused to cooperate with election workers, making it impossible to hold the election on January 24.
"We planned to go to Gaza to figure out how we can conduct elections there," Nasser said. "In the meantime, we received an answer from Hamas that we are not welcome in Gaza. It is clear now that we cannot hold an election in Gaza."
Hamas said Thursday it had opposed the election because it was unilaterally declared.
Nasser did not propose a new date for the balloting, in effect recommending that the vote be postponed indefinitely.
Abbas was in Jordan on Thursday and did not immediately comment. Palestinian officials said he might send the decision to the PLO Central Committee, which meets next month and would be expected to endorse the postponement.
Many of Abbas's backers had believed his threat to quit was a ploy designed to seek additional support for his policies. Negotiations between Israel and the PA had broken off when Netanyahu entered office in March.
They deadlocked in recent months, with the Palestinians insisting that Israel must stop all construction in the settlements before a resumption of talk. Israel in turn has rejected any preconditions for such talks and has insisted that limited construction will continue.
The US has backed the Palestinians call for a settlement freeze but has stood with Israel in its insistence that no precondition be set for such talks.
Sources repeated on Thursday that the White House meeting was warm and substantive and that the depth of the US's commitment to the peace process would soon be revealed with some progress on the Palestinian track.
The US, it was said, recognized the significant political challenges on the Palestinian side but still believed the means existed to move the Israeli-Palestinian process forward. The president, it was also understood, believed it was legitimate to ask, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman did last weekend, whether the parties and the elements were in place to enable progress, or whether a different approach might be needed. But, for now, said the sources, the US was still pursuing its goal of working toward a final-status solution through dialogue.
AP contributed to this report.
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