In Run-up to Palestinian Election, Abbas Navigates Political Mine Field

In his campaign for Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t so much been sprinting to the finish line as walking carefully along the political tightrope leading to Election Day. Abbas, the PLO chief and former prime minister who is all but certain to win Sunday’s election, has been working hard to appease the radically Islamist, and rather popular, Hamas, while at the same time not provoking Israel.

On a recent campaign swing through the Gaza Strip, Abbas — who is favored as a relative moderate by both Israel and the United States — criticized Hamas rocket attacks on Jews as “useless” but pledged not to forcefully disarm the terrorists who fired them.

In a BBC interview, Abbas, 69, said that instead he would seek to persuade terrorist groups to agree to a cease-fire with Israel. He said that fighting among Palestinians was a “red line” that must not be crossed.

“Everything can be settled by dialogue,” he said — although under the “road map” peace plan, the Palestinian Authority agreed to confront, disarm and dismantle the terror organizations.

Abbas has urged his people to halt violence against Israel, but at the same time has spoken out in favor of the Palestinians demand for a refugee “right of return” to lands within Israel proper — a move Israel views as demographic suicide.

Abbas’ carefully calibrated campaign has gone more smoothly than was anticipated at its outset six weeks ago. When Abbas visited the mourners’ tent for late P.A. President Yasser Arafat in Gaza, a group of armed men opened fire, killing a bodyguard and a P.A. security officer.

The mid-November attack raised fears that Abbas was in for a violent campaign. Since then, he has strived not to provoke any of the Palestinian factions.

But just to be on the safe side, Abbas also left Gaza for the last leg of his election tour.

Abbas’ campaign strategy appears to be working: His popularity has risen slowly but steadily as the candidate of the dominant Fatah faction and the heir apparent to Arafat, who died Nov. 11.

According to the latest polling by the Palestinian Policy Institute, Abbas enjoys the support of 65 percent of voters, compared to 22 percent for Mustafa Barghouti, his nearest competitor.

Hamas, the main opposition party, isn’t opposing the elections but also didn’t present a candidate of its own because the Palestinian Authority is an outgrowth of the Oslo peace accords, which the group rejects.

Hamas claims it will have a veto on any future policy decision regarding peace negotiations with Israel.

Hamas won nine of 26 municipal elections in the West Bank on Dec. 24, suggesting stronger support for the terrorist group than was expected. The elections were in communities considered strongholds of Fatah, which won 14 elections. Joint Hamas/Fatah slates won two seats.

Recent polls predict 85 percent turnout in the Jan. 9 elections. Abbas believes a high turnout will bolster his legitimacy, giving him leverage in seeking peace talks with Israel and reforming Palestinian government.

In another attempt to boost his popular support, there was speculation that Abbas would campaign in eastern Jerusalem. Israeli sources said they would not oppose such a visit as long as Abbas refrained from visiting the Temple Mount.

Two major factors have contributed to Abbas’ rise in popularity: The fact that many Palestinians are tired of the fighting, and the fact that there is no real alternative.

For a while, the popular Fatah militia leader Marwan Barghouti, serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail, threatened to challenge Abbas. But Barghouti backed off when he was warned that his candidacy could split Fatah in two.

When Abbas visited Rafah last week, he was given a hero’s welcome by thousands of people carrying his portrait and another of Arafat. Militants from the Al-Aksa Brigade, Fatah’s terrorist cadres, carried Abbas through the crowd on their shoulders, firing guns in the air in celebration.

Abbas denounced Israel’s counterterrorist operations in Gaza, telling the crowd that “the incursions, the assassinations, the destruction of houses will not break” the Palestinian residents.

The Israeli army lifted roadblocks to allow Abbas to travel through the territory unhindered, but reinstated them after he had passed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for his part, is taking pains to avoid missteps that occurred during Abbas’ short term as prime minister in 2003, when Sharon met with Abbas but made only some of the concessions Abbas demanded to boost his political status.

This time around the two leaders have not met at all, since an embrace by Israel can spell political doom for a Palestinian politician.

Israel has said it will do its utmost to facilitate the elections, despite the ongoing military confrontation in Gaza. On the eve of the elections, Israeli forces will withdraw from a wide swath of Palestinian areas to permit unimpeded voting.

Last week, high-level officials from the two sides met in Jerusalem to discuss the elections. Dov Weisglass, a senior aide to Sharon, headed the Israeli delegation. P.A. Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat headed the Palestinian delegation.

The delegations discussed security arrangements and the work of hundreds of international observers expected to descend on the territories for the elections.

The weak link in the chain was the escalation of Palestinian violence, with repeated Kassam rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli settlements in Gaza and the town of Sderot in the Negev desert.

The Israel Defense Forces then launched incursions into Gaza in an attempt to prevent the rocket and mortar attacks.

Abbas has accused Israel of deliberately trying to undermine the election by launching military operations in the Gaza Strip.

“It is true that there are some issues regarding rockets, which are useless, but in return there is a grave, a very grave Israeli escalation,” he said.

He declared that the Palestinians would not back down until a Palestinian state had been created with Jerusalem as its capital.

Renewing a call for a cease-fire with Israel, Abbas said rocket attacks against Israelis were counterproductive because they drew Israeli retaliation. Abbas didn’t call for such attacks to stop, but said Israel uses them as an excuse to launch reprisal raids, which hinder the election campaign.

“Negotiation is the fundamental way to reach peace between us and the Israelis, in order to implement the road map,” Abbas said.

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