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By Mohammed Assadi
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will accept the recommendation of independent election experts on Thursday to postpone the vote he had scheduled for January, senior officials said.
The Central Election Commission said it had advised Abbas to put off the election since the rival Hamas Islamist group ruling some 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip had warned it would not allow them to vote.
"We met today and we decided to tell the president, who called these elections, that we cannot have elections at the time he scheduled them," said commission head Hanna Naser.
Naser said the commission had tried to persuade Hamas to allow it to come to Gaza to prepare for the election but was rejected by the Islamists, who are arch rivals of Abbas and his more secular Fatah movement.
"Following the decision of the Commission, the president will consult with the leadership and will decide on the next steps," spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said.
"Preventing the Central Election Commission from going to Gaza Strip shows that Hamas is not anxious for the unity of the homeland and for national reconciliation."
A senior Fatah official said Abbas would "adhere to the decision of the commission" and put off the presidential and parliamentary polls, which he had scheduled for January 24.
An official announcement was expected sometime in the coming days.
Postponement will avoid a step that was destined to cause a permanent split in the deeply divided Palestinian movement. It will also delay a final decision by Abbas on his own future, after he suggested this month he might not seek reelection.
Abbas had set the election date after Hamas refused to sign a reconciliation pact drawn up by Egypt following more than a year of frustrating mediation efforts between the two hostile Palestinian factions.
The pact would have scheduled elections for June 2010.
Abbas has said on several occasions he would be ready to postpone the vote until then, if Hamas changed its mind and agreed to the reconciliation pact.
"HAND OF FRIENDSHIP" REJECTED
So far there is no sign the Islamist group intends to accept what Abbas on Wednesday repeated was the offer of his "hand in friendship." A Hamas spokesman responded immediately to the gesture, dismissing it as a "manoeuvre."
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri expressed no surprise at the likely postponement of the January 24 date.
"This is a natural result because of the lack of appropriate conditions and it is evidence of the credibility of Hamas' position, which rejected the call for elections before a national consensus was reached," he said.
Abbas declared last week that he does not wish to run for a second term as president of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, because he feels frustrated by an inability to move forward on peace negotiations with Israel.
He cited Israel's failure to stop all settlement building in the West Bank and disappointment with the United States over its failure to back the Palestinians demand for a freeze.
Addressing a rally in Ramallah on Wednesday to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, Abbas said that for peace talks to resume, Israel must recognise the terms of reference.
"We cannot go to negotiations without a framework. And we say the framework is U.N. resolutions, meaning a return to the 1967 borders," Abbas said, referring to Israel's borders on the eve of the conflict that changed the map of the Middle East.
Israeli, Arab and European leaders appealed to Abbas to reconsider, since he is viewed as their main partner for peace in any future negotiations.
An open-ended postponement of the elections would require the endorsement of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which Abbas heads. The PLO has the power to extend his term indefinitely.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ori Lewis; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Ralph Boulton)