Path to Abbas Presidency Cleared, but Road to Peace Remains Bumpy

When jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti threw his support behind Palestinian Authority presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas last week, Barghouti went a long way toward securing his role as an important political power broker in the Palestinian camp. The road to the presidency is now clear for Abbas, 69. But Barghouti’s heightened status, together with the likelihood that Hamas will field candidates in parliamentary elections come May, shows that the path to Palestinian-Israeli peace remains beset with obstacles.

The Palestinian political community has been in turmoil since Arafat died Nov. 11, a situation that could radically affect the diplomatic arena.

On the face of it, Barghouti seems to have given Abbas — the new PLO chief and the presidential candidate of the dominant Fatah faction — an easy road to the presidency, leaving him with no serious competition.

But when Barghouti, a popular Fatah leader serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail, announced that he himself would not seek the presidency, he helped crystallize a powerful role for himself in Palestinian politics.

The battle between the old and young guards in the Palestinian leadership has only just begun. Barghouti waits in his cell for the moment of truth.

Barghouti, 45, who hails from Ramallah, has been involved in politics since age 15. As a student, he was a leader of the first intifada. As Fatah leader in the West Bank, he was a staunch supporter of the Oslo Accords and of a “two-state solution” — that is, Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side — until the second intifada began in September 2000.

Barghouti was among those who guided the violence, directing terrorist attacks by Fatah’s Al-Aksa Brigade.

In 2002, Israeli commandos apprehended Barghouti at his Ramallah home. He was tried and sentenced for his role in the murder of Israelis.

Barghouti rejected the court’s legitimacy, denied the charges and used his trial as a soap box to denounce Israel’s presence on land the Palestinians want for a future state.

From his prison cell, he called on Palestinians to continue violence against Israel, drawing a sharp contrast with Abbas, who has said that violence hurts the Palestinian cause.

Then Barghouti dropped a political bombshell, passing word that he was considering an independent run for the presidency from jail.

Only after a four-hour visit last Friday at his Beersheba prison cell from his close friend, Cabinet minister Kadoura Fares, did Barghouti retract the idea and endorse Abbas. The price for his standing down: Abbas promised to hold internal Fatah elections in August 2005, the first such vote in 16 years.

It’s unclear what Barghouti’s chances for victory would have been had he run. He was said to be second only to Arafat in popularity among Palestinians. A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 27 percent of Palestinians consider Abbas the leading Palestinian figure, with Barghouti coming in second at 15.2 percent.

Even had he lost, Barghouti’s candidacy could have split Fatah — and, for that matter, the secular Palestinian movement — with dire consequences.

Barghouti apparently understood the dangers of such a schism, among them a significant strengthening of the militantly Islamist Hamas.

Only now does the real political game begin. Elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council are scheduled for May 2005, the first since 1996.

What makes these elections particularly important is the fact that Hamas likely will take part in an attempt to challenge the historic rule of Fatah.

Founded by Arafat, Fatah — which has led the Palestinian national movement for the past 40 years — will be the scene of a bitter political conflict as the old and new guard jostle for primacy.

The old guard accompanied Arafat over the years, mostly in exile, often as armchair revolutionaries.

The young guard represents the local leadership that has orchestrated the armed struggle against Israel. This coterie of younger leaders hopes to use the May elections to oust an entire generation of old leaders who until now enjoyed the political immunity afforded by Arafat.

From now on, every significant political move by the Palestinian Authority will have to take Barghouti into account.

Barghouti is not alone in awaiting a moment of truth. Because it probably will field candidates in the parliamentary elections — though not in the presidential contest — Hamas is likely to be part of a national coalition. With Hamas at the Cabinet table and Barghouti maneuvering from prison, Abbas will find it tough to negotiate with Israel.

That may explain why both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in recent interviews with Newsweek that they were willing to meet.

The region is bustling with diplomatic activity. An Egyptian delegation comprising intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul-Eit was expected here this week for a meeting with Sharon.

Abbas and P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei left for Egypt on Sunday to meet with President Hosni Mubarak. The foreign ministers of Germany and Spain also were on their way to the region.

Judging by the latest political developments, both the Palestinian Authority and Israel may be preoccupied in the latter part of 2005 with elections.

In his interview with Newsweek, Sharon spoke of a “window of opportunities.” Unfortunately, elections could close that window until further notice.

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