Israeli, Palestinian leaders face dissension in the ranks

Sharon coalition teeters

Barghouti takes on Abbas

December 02, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - In dual political crises yesterday, the coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began to totter because of a budget dispute, and the Palestinian political establishment was faced with a serious new challenge when a jailed, well-known figure unexpectedly declared his candidacy for president of the Palestinian Authority.

The decision by Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic Palestinian leader imprisoned in Israel, to seek the office greatly complicates the prospects for Mahmoud Abbas, who was chosen by the dominant Fatah political faction as its candidate in the Jan. 9 vote to elect a successor to the late Yasser Arafat.

Barghouti, 45 and a member of Fatah, will apparently run as an independent, but his core supporters are young Fatah members disenchanted with the party's old guard, embodied by the 69-year-old Abbas.

By entering the race, Barghouti risks splitting Fatah while its leaders are seeking unity. An Israeli court sentenced him in May to five consecutive life terms for his involvement in the murder of four Israelis and a Greek monk. Israeli officials have said they have no intention of releasing him.

Fatah officials who visited Barghouti in prison announced Friday that they had persuaded him not to run, so as to preserve a united Palestinian front, a decision that even his critics hailed as courageous. A Fatah official said Barghouti pledged to support Abbas in exchange for Fatah holding its first internal elections in 15 years, which could give more power to younger members.

It was unclear last night why Barghouti changed his mind. His campaign manager, Saad Nimr, paid the $3,000 registration fee yesterday afternoon, and his wife, Fadwa, submitted the required petition with 5,000 signatures four hours before the midnight deadline to formally declare his candidacy.

Election rules give Barghouti several days to withdraw his name, and some Palestinian critics questioned his motivations, saying he may be seeking leverage to secure more power for his supporters.

Supporters said they might read a statement from Barghouti today explaining his decision. His wife offered little comment while registering her husband's candidacy at the election office in the West Bank city of Ramallah as supporters cheered in the background.

Coalition splinters

In Israel, Sharon faced a political challenge yesterday that could jeopardize his plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

The prime minister forced the centrist Shinui Party out of his governing coalition after members helped defeat a budget proposal in parliament. Their action left the prime minister in control of just 40 of parliament's 120 seats. If Sharon is unable to win support from at least 61 members by Monday, when a confidence vote is scheduled, he will be forced to call early elections.

However, Shinui's departure from the government is far from final. The forced resignations of the party's five government ministers do not take effect officially until Saturday night, leaving a small window for bargaining.

In the meantime, aides said, Sharon will begin negotiations to bring the center-left Labor Party led by Shimon Peres into the government.

Sharon has lacked a majority in parliament for months, and his government has survived only because of support from Labor, which favors his Gaza disengagement plan.

In voting yesterday in parliament, lawmakers defeated the Sharon government's proposed $60 billion budget for 2005 by a vote of 69 to 43. Shinui, which is secular, opposed Sharon's promise of $64 million to schools affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party.

The chairman of the Shinui Party, Josef "Tommy" Lapid, said the prime minister orchestrated Shinui's ouster to build a government that included religious parties and would appeal to hard-liners of Sharon's own Likud Party.

"I would have expected from Sharon that after almost two years of cooperation, he would have found a more elegant way to part with us," Lapid said, reacting angrily to the prime minister's comments earlier in the day that Lapid "opposed anything Jewish."

Lapid said his party, even as part of the opposition, would continue to support Sharon's disengagement plan. "But we won't lend our hand to selling the state" to the ultra-Orthodox, he said from the podium.

Sharon, sitting in parliament, did not respond to Lapid or to a member of the United Torah Judaism Party who called Lapid racist. He has vowed not to call for elections.

Peres said Sharon must invite Labor into the government or call for new elections. Labor voted against the budget.

Labor was last a partner with Sharon in 2002, with Peres serving as foreign minister. Labor left the government in October 2002 in a budget dispute.

Dueling candidates

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