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By Douglas Hamilton
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Younger Palestinian leaders were in no rush on Friday to step into the shoes of President Mahmoud Abbas after he said he did not want to run for re-election in January.
Making clear Abbas' Fatah movement is, so far, unwilling to take the 74-year-old president at his word, none of the men seen as potential successors threw his hat into the ring after Abbas's announcement on Thursday.
Israel and the United States were also careful not to take his decision as irrevocable. They rely on Abbas as their partner in the diplomatic drive for a Middle East peace treaty.
"We've seen episodes of leaders making false exits. But what's important here is the message he's sending," said one senior European diplomat close to the peace process. "Is it a call for attention? A warning? An I-told-you-so?"
"I see it as not yet a political testament but an invitation to 'Grasp this one, it might be your last chance'," he said.
In his address to the nation, Abbas on Thursday expressed disappointment with U.S. President Barack Obama for "favouring" Israel in arguments over relaunching peace talks and said his decision to stand down was not a negotiating tactic.
He said he had told Palestine Liberation Organisation leaders "I have no desire to run in the forthcoming election" for President of the Palestinian Authority on January 24 .
His departure now could throw a wrench into the shuddering machinery of a "peace process" that is deadlocked. But with the Palestinians deeply split between Fatah and the Hamas movement, some analysts doubt there will be an election in January.
The EU diplomat also noted that the peace negotiations are between Israel and the PLO, not the Palestinian Authority, which meant Abbas could carry on with talks wearing his other hat.
Abbas is chairman of the PLO, the original umbrella organisation of the Palestinian movement, and head of its major group Fatah, which dominates the government of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
NO OBVIOUS SUCCESSOR
The PLO executive has no credible successor to Abbas waiting in the wings, and his Fatah movement is in a similar position.
"Between now and the election date, we hope Abbas will reconsider," said top Fatah official Mohammad Shtayyeh.
Abbas voiced frustration with Obama for initially backing the Palestinian demand for a "freeze" on Israel's settlement building in the occupied West Bank, then shifting to a softer call for "restraint" while talks relaunch.
Israel hinted strongly that it would prefer him to stay on.
"It's definitely an Israeli interest, as it is an American, Western, Palestinian one, that there be a moderate and pragmatic Palestinian leadership," said Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, using a common description of Abbas' qualities.
France and Britain were also unwilling to look beyond Abbas.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner saw "a threat to the peace process" but "given there are no elections for the time being, one cannot say there will be any immediate impact."
"President Abbas has played an absolutely critical role," said David Miliband. "He has a lot of achievement to his credit but he also has a major role in the future."
Ori Nir of the activist group Americans for Peace Now said Abbas' announcement "underscores that the peace process has only two gears -- forward and reverse." There is no neutral and without progress, moderates like Abbas will lose heart, he said.
Among possible candidates to succeed Abbas are former security chief Mohammad Dahlan; Marwan Barghouthi, a popular Fatah figure serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison, and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank technocrat.
None of them was reported to be ready to declare a bid.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Paris and Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo)

Reuters