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Is Mahmoud Abbas really ready to quit this time?

Worn out has-been or drama queen? Interpretations of the Palestinian president's threat to quit vary greatly.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) central committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah Oct. 24, 2009. (Fadi Arouri/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Sometimes a quitter really does quit for good. 

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced last week that he wouldn’t run for re-election in the proposed January elections. Back when he was Yasser Arafat’s deputy in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas sulked off to his home in the Persian Gulf several times. As Arafat’s prime minister, he quit in the middle of the intifada, accusing the Palestinian leader of undermining him and slamming the U.S. for failing to back him fully.

Each time, he slipped back from exile, until he took over from Arafat on his death and was elected to office, in January 2005. But the 74-year-old now says that he’s exhausted by the political events of this past year, particularly the failure of the Obama administration to pressure Israel on continued settlement-building in the West Bank.

At first, Abbas’s announcement was interpreted as a ploy to press Washington and the Israelis. Israeli, European and Arab leaders called Abbas to beg him to stay on. The West has long banked on Abbas, one of the formulators of the Oslo Peace Accords, as the best hope for a deal with Israel. If he were to go, things might look bleak for peace. (Not that they don’t look bleak right now.)

Despite the phone calls to Ramallah, most leaders assessed Abbas’s move as a tactic rather than a genuine expression of finality — like an actress pouting in her trailer until the director strokes her ego. After all, Abbas said only that he wouldn’t run in the January elections. It’s far from certain that those elections will be held, because Hamas won’t allow a poll in the Gaza Strip, which it controls. That would leave Abbas in office, in spite of his announcement.

Then Palestinian officials started talking to local and international media about what they claimed were Abbas’ true feelings. To sum up: He’s really had it with the Israeli government’s intransigence, and the way the U.S. backed down over settlements was the last straw.

Abbas’ supporters added that if he were to quit, the entire Palestinian Authority might collapse. It is, after all, fairly unloved among Palestinians. The only politician to have told his aides he would run to replace Abbas, Marwan Barghouti, is serving a series of life sentences in an Israeli prison. There are also plenty of Palestinian leaders who hanker for the old days of backroom political deals and lucrative private trade monopolies, which were nixed by Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salaam Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist.