Fatah plots ways to meet challenge from Barghouti

Candidate imprisoned by Israel is criticized for splitting Palestinians

The World

December 03, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Threatened by the unexpected candidacy of Marwan Barghouti, the dominant Fatah party scrambled yesterday to rethink its strategy for a presidential election whose outcome it had considered a foregone conclusion.

Fatah officials criticized Barghouti for undermining party unity, while his supporters remained largely out of public view.

Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, canceled a news conference at which she was expected to explain her husband's sudden change of course - from supporter of Fatah's presidential candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, to serious challenger.

The criticism of Barghouti, who is running to become president of the Palestinian Authority despite being imprisoned in Israel for his role in the killing of five people, was brief but sharp.

"We see Mr. Barghouti's choice as an irresponsible act," Tayeb Abdel Rahim, secretary-general of the Fatah Central Committee, said in Gaza. Added another Fatah official, Hatem Abdel Kader, "We will do everything we can to convince Marwan to remove his candidacy."

Barghouti is now estranged from Fatah as well as from colleagues who negotiated an agreement last week in which he agreed not to run in exchange for a larger role for his reform-oriented supporters.

"Now, if he gets out of the race, his supporters will be really mad with him and he might lose his constituency," said Aref Jaffal, the director of the Civic Forum Institute in Ramallah. "If he stays in the race, Fatah will be really mad with him."

Barghouti is considered the representative of a younger generation that disdains officials who returned from exile with Yasser Arafat and who, like his chief opponent Abbas, have controlled Palestinian institutions for decades.

Fatah leaders, deeply concerned about Barghouti, sought last week to stop him from becoming a candidate to replace Arafat in the Jan. 9 elections. A small delegation met with him in jail and persuaded him to stay out of the race.

Concessions, demands

In return, Fatah leaders promised to hold internal elections next summer, the first in 15 years, that would give Barghouti's supporters a slice of power.

But Fatah officials privately said that Barghouti had made other demands, which were not met and might be the reason he changed his mind about running. One, several said yesterday, was that Abbas restart peace talks with Israel only if Israeli released Barghouti.

Almost overlooked yesterday was the announcement by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission that 10 people would be on the ballot for president, all of them but Barghouti and Abbas little known.

Official campaigning cannot begin until Dec. 26. Candidates have until Dec. 15 to withdraw, and Barghouti is under intense pressure to do so.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said on state television yesterday that Barghouti's candidacy is damaging: "There is Marwan al-Barghouti. He said; `No', then came back again. It splits the Palestinian line, and we urge the Palestinians that there should be one voice and no differences at a time when we need to stay clear of differences."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel said yesterday that Barghouti would not get special treatment if he were elected.

"We cannot intervene in Barghouti announcing his candidacy," he said. "But if you're asking me, if he is able to act, he will be able to act within the framework of the conditions of the prison where he is jailed."

Solitary confinement

He is being held in solitary confinement, without television, radio or newspapers.

Barghouti's campaign manager, Saad Nimr, said he would expect Israel to release Barghouti if he is elected. "He would be our sole, democratically elected president," Nimr said. "When we practice our democracy, Israel has to respond to our decisions."

Nimr said that Barghouti offered a choice different from Hamas, which rules out negotiations with Israel, and Abbas, who has called the armed uprising a "historic mistake" and wants to resume talks with Israel while stopping all attacks.

Barghouti wants to negotiate while keeping the military option open.

"If Israel can negotiate while maintaining its occupation, than we can negotiate while mounting a resistance," Nimr said. "People want peace, and they see it with Marwan. But they don't want to renounce the resistance. That is why Marwan is so popular."

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