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Can moderate Abbas weather Hamas's rise?

The Palestinian leader may resign if next week's vote gives militants upper hand.

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A kaleidoscope of campaign banners that is a who's who of Palestinian politics floats above traffic-choked el-Manara Square. Yasser Arafat smiles against the background of Jerusalem. Jailed militant leader Marwan Barghouti waves his shackled hands in defiance of Israel.

Nowhere is the portrait of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

With only days to go before the Jan. 25 vote for parliament, and his Fatah Party dangerously close to losing to the Islamic militants of Hamas, the Palestinian moderate has taken a low profile in an election that many see as a referendum on his tenure.

Aides say election laws forbid the president, not up for reelection, from campaigning, but observers suggest Mr. Abbas is a liability because he has disappointed many Palestinians.

"He represents an image that can be harmful to the campaign," says Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Ramallah's Birzeit University. "On a popular level, people do not see him really as someone whom they can trust to deliver because they've given him a full year to deliver and he didn't. There's an ironic thing: here the Palestinian public and the Israeli government meet."

Indeed, a Hamas victory could turn Abbas, who has said he'll only serve one term, into a lame duck unable to lead the Palestinians back into peace talks.

In another sign that pressure may be ratcheting up on Abbas, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated an explosive in south Tel Aviv Thursday afternoon, wounding 14. It was the first attack since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke in December and will test the response of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's caretaker government.

Last January Abbas was coronated Yasser Arafat's successor with a 62 percent electoral mandate, buoying hopes for a resumption of peace talks with Israel and promising to rein in Palestinian gunmen. But he achieved neither.


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