- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

From combined dispatches

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Jailed leader Marwan Barghouti will quit the Palestinian presidential race if his political demands are met by his rival, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah official said yesterday.

A withdrawal by Barghouti, a popular grass-roots figure in the Palestinian uprising, would end a simmering political crisis and all but assure victory for Mr. Abbas, a moderate favored by Israel and Washington as a potential peacemaker.

The two have been running neck and neck ahead of the Jan. 9 ballot for a successor to Yasser Arafat. But an opinion poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found yesterday that Mr. Abbas has a lead of more than five percentage points.

Meanwhile, President Bush yesterday approved $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority to help pay its utility bills to Israel.

Mr. Bush’s decision to provide the money breaks with long-standing restrictions on direct U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and is part of what the White House called a renewed push for peace after the death of Mr. Arafat.

“We’re sending a message with this financial assistance that we want to help as they move forward on elections and as they move forward on putting institutions in place for a viable state to emerge,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Barghouti, signaling that his departure from the race might not be far off, has presented a list of demands, including that East Jerusalem be the capital of a future state, in line with traditional Palestinian negotiating positions already held by Mr. Abbas.

“If Abbas agrees to adopt these points, Marwan will withdraw, and an announcement will be made very soon,” the senior official said as Barghouti came under intense pressure from his dominant Fatah movement to abandon his election bid.

A victory for Barghouti would pose problems for reviving long-stalled peace talks with Israel. He is serving five life terms after an Israeli court convicted him of ordering attacks that killed Israelis. He has denied involvement in violence.

As part of his conditions for quitting the race, Barghouti wants Mr. Abbas to pledge to demand a just solution to the refugee problem, Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners and a halt to arrests and killings of militants.

He also wants Mr. Abbas to insist that Israel pull back its forces from the West Bank before the election and keep them out afterward, and halt construction of the vast barrier it is building through occupied territory, the official said.

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