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Palestinian officials pledge to hold elections by fall

A day after watching Egypt's regime collapse, Palestinian officials promised Saturday they would elect new leadership in presidential and legislative elections by September, and said that their chief peace negotiator had tendered his resignation.

The shakeup appeared to reflect an attempt by the Palestine Liberation Organization to navigate the tidal wave of democratic upheaval spreading through the Arab world and, if possible, to use its momentum to draw international attention to the Palestinian bid for self-determination.

But skeptics noted that elections have been repeatedly canceled in the past and said it was unclear whether the resignation of Saeb Erekat had been accepted.

Erekat, who has represented Palestinians at the negotiating table for 16 years, said he tendered his resignation to accept responsibility for the leak, apparently from his office, of thousands of confidential papers detailing talks with Israel. Al Jazeera news channel released the documents last month, revealing private details about Palestinians' offers and stances in past peace talks.

Many viewed the call for elections as an attempt to appease rising frustration in the West Bank, particularly following the popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt.

"This is just for local consumption so they can tell the people they are heading for political change," said Sattar Kassem, a political analyst and activist from the West Bank town of Nablus. "They're not serious. They just want to absorb some of the anger."

The announcement was also seen as an effort to increase pressure on Israel and the rival Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to resign several times, and he has pledged not to run again. By scheduling new elections, Abbas could be sending a signal to Israel and the United States that unless progress is made on stalled peace talks, he could be replaced by a less moderate leader.

That was the lesson of the last national Palestinian elections in 2006, when Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel label a terrorist organization, won. A subsequent attempt at a unity government collapsed in 2007, leaving Hamas in control of Gaza, and Fatah, the PLO's main faction, in control of the West Bank.

PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed-Rabbo said Saturday that the Egyptian revolution had given new urgency to the Palestinian drive for statehood.

"At this historic crossroads, Israel must understand that the rules of the game have changed irreversibly," he said. "The Israeli government must now realize that it will no longer be possible to enjoy immunity while continuing to defy international law and the international consensus that now calls for the establishment of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state."

U.S.-sponsored peace talks broke down last year after Israel did not extend a partial freeze on settlement construction on West Bank land seized in 1967.

Hamas officials, as they have in the past, rejected the PLO's call for new elections, saying they would not allow Gaza to participate. Reconciliation attempts mediated by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak failed last year.

"This call for elections is illegal," said Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan. "Elections cannot be held before ending the split between Fatah and Hamas."

He characterized the PLO announcement as a sign of desperation. "Today's call for a vote is a clear sign that it is collapsing like its ally regimes. This might be the PLO's last card."

Abed-Rabbo called upon Hamas to participate in the election and then settle the differences.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, and Ahmed Aldabba in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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