- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti yesterday abandoned plans to run in upcoming presidential elections, throwing his support behind Mahmoud Abbas, the candidate of the ruling Fatah party, Palestinian officials said.

The popular politician’s decision to abort his nascent campaign ended a candidacy that could have shaken up Palestinian politics. Instead, it strengthened the candidacy of Mr. Abbas, a pragmatist who opposes violence and appears to have the tacit support of Israel and the United States.

Meanwhile, Israel agreed to remove all roadblocks in the West Bank on Jan. 9, the day of the election, according to security officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. Israel has said it will do its utmost to ensure that the elections go smoothly.

Barghouti, 45, is the popular leader of Fatah’s young guard. He is serving five life terms after an Israeli court convicted him of murder in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.

Despite his imprisonment, many Fatah leaders feared his popularity could carry him to victory in the election, or split the Fatah vote and allow another candidate to emerge victorious.

Hoping a promise of greater openness would appease Fatah’s increasingly restless younger activists and persuade Barghouti not to run, Fatah announced yesterday it would hold long-overdue party elections Aug. 4, Yasser Arafat’s birthday.

Fatah held its last conference and elections in Algeria in 1989, and many young Fatah activists have complained that the continuing delay in holding a new vote was freezing them out of leadership positions.

Armed with Mr. Abbas’ promise to hold the party elections, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Kadoura Fares traveled to Nafha Prison in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba yesterday to meet with Barghouti. Fatah announced the election date during the meeting, and Barghouti said he was pleased with the commitment, Mr. Fares said.

“After a meeting of four hours, during which we debated this issue, Marwan Barghouti sends this message to the Palestinian people and its fighters. … He calls on the members of the movement to support the movement’s candidate, Mahmoud Abbas,” Mr. Fares told reporters.

Both Mr. Abbas and Barghouti support the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

The two differ on the uprising. Mr. Abbas has spoken out against violence and said the current uprising was a mistake, but Barghouti has justified attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza as legitimate resistance to occupation.

Barghouti’s supporters have said they were counting on international pressure on Israel to free him. Israel’s leaders insist Barghouti will remain in prison.

However, Israel appeared to be signaling yesterday that it is easing Barghouti’s prison conditions. In addition to Mr. Fares, Israeli Arab legislator Jamal Sahalka also visited Barghouti yesterday. In the past, legislators had complained about restricted access.

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