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Abbas' leadership style is at issue

The Fatah leader's travels far and not near stir concern with a new Palestinian vote possible.

RAMALLAH, West Bank - In four years as Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas has traveled to the far corners of the earth, but never set foot in the West Bank's largest city, Hebron.

Ordinary Palestinians have long grumbled about their leader's travels abroad amid crises at home. Those include trips to France and several Arab countries immediately after the Islamic extremist group Hamas routed forces loyal to Abbas' Fatah party to take over the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

Abbas aides say he is helping the Palestinian cause by rallying international support. They say the day-to-day government is the prime minister's job and Abbas, who was in Chechnya on Sunday, is continuing a pattern set by his predecessor, frequent flier Yasir Arafat.

"The world is still supporting us . . . simply because of our efforts, the efforts of President Abbas and before that the late president, Yasir Arafat," said Abbas aide Nimr Hamad.

But the globe-trotting Abbas was reminded recently by Fatah district leaders that he had never been to Hebron as president. Abbas, who also has not been to several other nearby towns as president, told the Fatah chiefs he would get out more often. Yesterday, his office said he would visit Hebron this week, after attending Christmas festivities in Bethlehem.

Abbas' leadership style is becoming more of an issue now that he must win a new mandate. His opponents say his four-year term ends in early January, and he has said he would call new elections. But there is also a possibility he will simply stay on as president, over Hamas' objections.

Either way, his performance, including the loss of Gaza and his failure to reach a peace deal with Israel, will come under more scrutiny as he struggles for renewed political legitimacy.

Commentator Hani al-Masri said Abbas has little to show for his years in office and will be remembered as the leader on whose watch Palestinian territories were torn in half.

Masri said he believes Abbas tries to go abroad often, in part, to avoid dealing with the burning domestic issues. "We have very complicated problems that he couldn't handle: the split, the corruption, the occupation," said Masri, a writer for the pro-government Al Ayyam daily.

Since 2005, Abbas has visited dozens of countries, several of them repeatedly.

The list includes many Arab and European nations, as well as Chile, Mauritania, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Pakistan, Senegal, Malta, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali and Brunei.

On Friday, he met President Bush in Washington. He then headed to Moscow, but first stopped in Chechnya.

Since the West Bank doesn't have an airport, Abbas must cross into neighboring Jordan, where he often spends extra time at his villa there. He takes his private plane on short trips, but the United Arab Emirates lends him a larger plane for longer hauls.

When he's in the West Bank, he usually stays in Ramallah, shuttling between his home there and his nearby government compound. The only other West Bank towns he has visited in his official capacity are Nablus, Jericho and Bethlehem.

Hamas Signals Short Cease-Fire

Gaza's ruling

Hamas yesterday ordered extremists to hold their fire for 24 hours and said a truce with Israel could be restored, but as rockets continued to fall, Israel signaled it was preparing for a possible offensive.

In a TV interview

, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar indicated Hamas was interested in renewing the truce with Israel.

Israel did not

agree to halt operations in the West Bank under the truce that expired Friday and Israeli officials declined to comment on the interview.

Hamas said extremists

were told yesterday to halt rocket fire for 24 hours to see whether Israel would allow vital supplies to be shipped into Gaza. Other factions, including Islamic Jihad, said they received no such order.

- Associated Press