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By Mohammed Assadi and Ali Sawafta
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Friday for presidential and parliamentary elections on January 24, in a political gamble that could end in divorce for the divided Palestinian movement.
His Islamist rivals Hamas immediately rejected the call and suggested they may hold their own ballot in the Gaza Strip, a move that would create two rival presidents, two parliaments and two prime ministers in two, separate Palestinian territories.
Abbas is the West's chosen partner-for-peace in stalled talks that U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to resurrect soon with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Iranian-backed Hamas refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist.
The election call is a risky tactic that further complicates an already difficult process, but may have been discussed in a telephone conversation Abbas had earlier in the day with Obama, who called him to talk about the status of peace efforts.
Spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said Obama reiterated his personal commitment to establishing a Palestinian state, while Abbas repeated that a relaunch of talks required clarity about the deal in view, and a halt to Israeli settlement activities.
An aide to Abbas, who leads the dominant Fatah party in the West Bank, suggested Hamas might yet agree to patch up the split and take part in a delayed election, possibly in June. But the Islamists' angry reaction was a bad omen.
A senior Palestinian official in Ramallah in the Israeli occupied West Bank, said Abbas, 74, had decided to call for the ballot after Hamas and his secular Fatah movement failed to reach a unity deal in over a year of Egyptian-brokered talks.
Abbas has no clear successor and would be expected to lead his party into the campaign, seeking re-election.
The Western-backed president said the vote must be held in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. "All concerned parties ... must execute the terms of this decree," a presidential statement said.
But Gaza, the coastal enclave blockaded by Israel, is fully under the control of Hamas.
The Islamist movement challenges the legitimacy of Abbas's presidency, saying his mandate expired in January of this year. It had already threatened to defy a January 2010 election call.
A senior source in the Hamas administration in Gaza, who declined to be named, told Reuters his government was studying the possibility of holding a separate election in Gaza, also on January 24, to counter what he termed Abbas's "unilateral" move. Hamas won the last parliamentary election in 2006.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the decision "a fatal blow to reconciliation efforts and a prolonging of divisions."
"Abbas has succumbed to American pressures not to reconcile with Hamas unless we recognise the Quartet conditions," he said.
The so-called Quartet of Middle East envoys -- from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- insist that Hamas recognise Israel's right to exist and renounce violence before taking any place in government.
Senior Hamas politician Mushir Al-Masri called Abbas's election decree "a lethal stab" at reconciliation.
An official close to Abbas said there was still time to avoid a full divorce that would pitch the Palestinian leadership into uncharted territory and possibly scupper hopes of a treaty with Israel, which would likely refuse to do half a peace deal.
"If we reach an agreement, the election date can be rescheduled," the official suggested.
But lengthy efforts to forge a unity deal have produced no concrete result, and the two movements remain bitter rivals for Palestinian popular support. Fatah has signed on to the latest Egyptian unity proposals but Hamas, which drove Fatah out of the Gaza enclave in 2007, has so far refused.
Hamas has the power to prevent a credible election taking place on its territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians. A vote without the full participation of Gaza could effectively create two rival Palestinian powers in separate territories.
About 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.
An opinion poll earlier this month showed Abbas losing popular support after a series of policy breakdowns over the stalled Middle East peace process and a U.N. report criticising Israel for alleged war crimes in Gaza last January.
The poll indicated that Abbas and Gaza's Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh were about even in popular support, but put support for the president's Fatah party ahead of the Islamists.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)
(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Philippa Fletcher)