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Abbas postpones Palestinian vote for parliament


JERUSALEM - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction has been rattled by the growing political influence of the militant group Hamas, postponed yesterday parliamentary elections that had been scheduled to take place in mid-July.

Hamas denounced the move, saying the delay harmed the Palestinian national interest, but refrained from making any threat to respond with violence.

Abbas announced the decision in a presidential decree, blaming technical reasons for the postponement. Voting for the Palestinian parliament was to have taken place July 17, less than a month before Israel is due to begin its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

In recent months, the Palestinian leader has been sparring with members of parliament, which is dominated by Fatah, over procedures for selecting the candidates and conducting the voting.

Abbas wanted to field a largely national slate, which he believed would enable Fatah to put forth candidates who are younger, more progressive and less likely to be perceived as tied to corruption that was endemic during the era of Yasser Arafat.

But powerful old-guard parliamentary factions backed the idea of voting by district, a method that some entrenched politicians believe would enable them to benefit from clan ties and local influence. Hamas, as well, could benefit from such an arrangement.

No new date was set for the balloting, although it seemed unlikely to take place before the start of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, scheduled slated to start about Aug. 15. Abbas said an election date would be set after talks with Palestinian lawmakers and consultations with rival political groups, including Hamas.

"Postponement was necessary to enable ourselves to finalize the legal measures and consultations between factions," Abbas told Palestinian TV.

But, he added, "time is short."

The parliamentary balloting will mark the first time that Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has run candidates for seats in the legislature, which was last chosen in 1996. Hamas scored impressive results in municipal votes held in the wake of Arafat's death and is expected to do well in the parliamentary election - a prospect that has caused deep concern in Israel and considerable unease in Washington, which is seeking to promote democratic reforms in the Middle East.

Hamas is a sworn enemy of the Jewish state, and its military wing carried out dozens of suicide bombings in the course of the Palestinians' 4 1/2 -year intifada.

An endorsement of Hamas by the Palestinian electorate, however, would not necessarily point to a repudiation of the pragmatic stance Abbas has taken toward Israel. The group's popularity is strongly bolstered by its image among Palestinians as being untainted by corruption.

Hamas has also built a loyal following, particularly among the poorest of the poor, by providing an array of essential social services such as medical clinics, food handouts and schools. In municipalities where it wields power, Hamas has devoted considerable energy and attention to mundane civic matters such as repairing potholed roads and fixing war-damaged sewage systems.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the postponement could "affect the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the resistance forces" - a veiled reference to the informal truce to which Hamas has adhered in recent months, at Abbas' behest. Under the arrangement, militant groups have largely refrained from attacks against Israeli targets.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the delay, characterizing it as an internal Palestinian affair. But some Israeli commentators said it pointed to a dangerous weakness on the part of Abbas, who is beset by fighting within Fatah as well as the challenge from Hamas.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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