The PLO's Central Council decided late Sunday to declare Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas "president of the State of Palestine" in response to Hamas's opposition to the extension of his term in office beyond January 9. The title had been held previously by Yasser Arafat following the Palestinian "declaration of independence" in 1989. PLO officials said the decision to bestow the title on Abbas was aimed at preventing a situation where Hamas would declare its own "president" after January 9. Abbas has made it clear that he intended to unilaterally extend his term in office for an additional year - a move that Hamas and other Palestinians have dismissed as "unconstitutional." Abbas was elected for a four-year term in January 2005. He insists that he is entitled to stay in power for another year because of a proposed amendment to the PA's Basic Law [which was never approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council]. On Sunday, shortly before the PLO Central Council declared him "president," Abbas threatened to call early parliamentary and presidential elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if efforts to end the dispute with Hamas remained stalled. Palestinians reacted with skepticism to the council's decision and said they did not see how it could help Abbas in his confrontation with Hamas. "Instead of working to end the blockade on the Gaza Strip, Abbas is busy seeking new titles," commented a veteran Palestinian journalist in Ramallah. "Dozens of PLO officials meet in Ramallah and the only decision they take is to call Abbas the president of a state that doesn't exist. What a joke!" A Fatah legislator claimed that Abbas had become so "obsessed" with the issue of his presidency that he was prepared to do anything to stay in power. He said that Abbas's threat to call early elections was "also a joke" because the PA president knows there's no way he could hold the vote in the Gaza Strip. The legislator expressed fear that Abbas and Fatah would lose their credibility and legitimacy among the Palestinians and Arabs after January 9. "We are headed toward a very serious crisis on the Palestinian arena," he cautioned. "The only way to avoid deterioration is by reaching some kind of an agreement between Hamas and Fatah," he added. One of Abbas's advisors, Nimer Hammad, said Monday he did not rule out the possibility that in the end the PA would be forced to hold elections only in the West Bank. Mahmoud Zahar, the top Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said the council's latest decision "reflected Abbas's deep crisis as his term in office nears its end." Zahar said the council wasn't authorized to take such decisions. "The president of a state is elected by the people and not by an institution that lost its credibility and legitimacy a long time ago," he said. "Abbas was elected by a tiny minority of PLO members," he added. Zahar pointed out that the PLO council had not held internal elections for over two decades. "These [PLO] officials don't represent anyone," he said. Zahar added that he too didn't rule out the possibility that the elections would be held only in the West Bank. "Abbas is facing a real crisis and he is trying to save himself," he said. "But these elections wouldn't be fair and wouldn't have any credibility, especially since many Hamas leaders and members are sitting in Israeli and Palestinian Authority prisons."