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By Mohammed Assadi and Douglas Hamilton
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Voter registration for a Palestinian election failed to get under way as scheduled on Tuesday, adding to signs that President Mahmoud Abbas might be bluffing about a make-or-break vote in January.
If that turned out to be the case, he may also be bluffing about quitting the presidency. His real aims may be to repair badly damaged Palestinian unity and to bolster American support for his position in peace talks with Israel.
But if it is no bluff, efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict will enter uncharted waters. The election will split the Palestinian movement and at the same time remove from the scene the man the West counts on as peace-maker with Israel.
Abbas called the election last month in line with the constitution, while knowing it would probably be rejected by his Islamist rivals Hamas, who rule Gaza.
Analysts saw a gamble, that Hamas would balk at formalising the split and finally agree to a "reconciliation" pact.
Last week, citing disillusionment with the faltering peace process and what he believes is Washington's failure to back legitimate Palestinian demands, Abbas announced he personally did not plan to seek re-election on January 24.
Tuesday was supposed to see the start of a five-day process of registering an estimated 260,000 young Palestinians who have reached voting age since the last election in 2006.
But none of 1,000 registration centres in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip was open to take names. The independent Palestinian Central Election Commission (CEC), which organised ballots in 1996, 2005 and 2006, had no comment on the delay.
Along with an absence of political posters, billboards, or banners for the parliamentary and presidential race, a total lack of campaign excitement was another sign that the election date may be a political fiction.
"These are all indications that the elections will not take place on the 24th," a Western diplomat said.
Officials were already talking of alternative scenarios.
"The CEC will tell the president in a week from now whether they can do it or not," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a top aide to Abbas. If not, he said, Abbas would look into "other options."
There was no indication what these might include, but one alternative is that Abbas stays on in power.
VOTE WOULD FORMALISE SPLIT
Abbas is disappointed that U.S. President Barack Obama is "favouring" Israel by dropping his insistence that it freeze all building of settlements on occupied West Bank territory before suspended peace talks are relaunched.
Abbas got support from the United Nations and France on Tuesday. French President Nicolas Sarkozy encouraged him to carry on, the Elysee said on Tuesday, so peace talks can be relaunched on a basis "agreed to by the international community" -- meaning a settlements freeze.
And U.N. Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry, after meeting Abbas, said "this precious asset is now in jeopardy" and his decision not to seek re-election was "a loud and clear wake-up call" to Israel to stop settlement building.
But settlements are not Abbas' only problem.
Within minutes of calling the election in a statement on October 23, Abbas faced a dire challenge from his arch rival Hamas, the Islamist group which took control of the Gaza Strip after driving out forces loyal to Abbas' Fatah group in 2007.
Hamas said it would not permit the vote to take place in Gaza -- thereby excluding a third of the Palestinian population -- and might hold a separate election, leading to two rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas rejects Abbas' policy of seeking a peace treaty with Israel and creating a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, insisting that armed struggle must not be abandoned.
It says the 74-year-old president's policy has failed and he no longer has any legitimacy.
"As long as Hamas in Gaza is not willing to cooperate with the CEC, they cannot start the steps that precede holding elections, such as updating the voter registry and other things," said one official familiar with the rules.
Abbas' decision to schedule elections despite the obviously deep rift prompted many analysts to seek an ulterior motive for his announcement, and to predict that the vote would not happen in January but only in June, with both parties engaged.
The move had come as Fatah and Hamas -- after a year of mediation by Cairo -- failed to meet the final October deadline for signing an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal.
Analysts said it was a clear threat that unless Hamas bowed to compromise, it would end up shouldering the blame for definitively splitting the Palestinian independence movement.
Abbas confirmed that reading by saying he would postpone the election until June, provided the Islamists gave their assent.
But that has not happened, so far.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, writing by Douglas Hamilton and editing by Samia Nakhoul and Mark Trevelyan)

Reuters