- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

NABLUS, West Bank — It was a well-scripted campaign swing through a troubled Palestinian city.

Presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas was serenaded by a crush of students on the campus of Al-Najah University, made a pilgrimage to the stone alleyways of the old city — the site of a fierce battle with Israel two years ago — and then was hailed by dozens of gun-toting militants in Balataa refugee district.

But as Mr. Abbas rode the crest of adoring crowds on Friday, ahead of almost certain victory in today’s election to choose Yasser Arafat’s successor as Palestinian leader, there were already signs of frayed solidarity

Amid a lineup of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade fighters awaiting Mr. Abbas’ arrival in the Nablus casbah, a leader of the militia took pause when questioned whether the approaching candidate could be the group’s “mubaya’a” — Arabic for solitary leader.

“We don’t use this word,” said Nasser Juma’a, the spokesman for the brigade best known for sending dozens of suicide bombers to their deaths inside Israel.

“But we’re part of Fatah, and we obey the decision of the movement toward Fatah candidates,” said the spokesman, referring to the Fatah party that Mr. Abbas represents.

More than 1.2 million Palestinians are registered to vote in the balloting for a new president of the Palestinian Authority. No campaigning was allowed yesterday, the day before the election, but hundreds of international observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and a U.S. congressional delegation, began fanning out yesterday to monitor the election.

Meanwhile, Israel threatened to cancel plans to ease restrictions on the Palestinian territories for the presidential election after a West Bank shooting that left a soldier dead, public radio reported.

The remark by the Fatah militant hinted at the delicate foundation of Mr. Abbas’ support and the large plate of domestic challenges around the corner from the election.

But before he can worry about peace negotiations with Israel, Mr. Abbas will need to consolidate power within Fatah and reach a cease-fire with Islamic militants. That’s a tall order for a political figure with a reputation for being aloof, a proponent of nonviolence rather than militancy, and for being inflexible.

The initial momentum of Mr. Abbas’ mandate as Palestinian leader will ride on his margin of victory and the voter turnout. But the vacuum left by Mr. Arafat, who died Nov. 11, is considerably larger than his cult of personality. Mr. Abbas will inherit an ailing political party, an ineffectual government bureaucracy, a morass of rival militias and security agencies, and cities awash in anarchy.

Whether the 69-year-old Fatah veteran can build the coalitions to form his own base depends in some degree on the political capital bestowed by concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and gestures from the Bush administration. And although Mr. Abbas said Thursday he’s ready to sit opposite Mr. Sharon at the negotiating table, some analysts suggest it could take years before he comes into his own. But in the West Bank and Gaza, he may not last that long.

“The grace period will be very short,” said Ron Pundak, director of the Peres Center for Peace and a former negotiating partner with Mr. Abbas. “Now they are all around him. Tomorrow, each group will be for itself.”

Mr. Abbas may well have to start in his own political back yard, Fatah. The political party founded by Mr. Arafat dominates Palestinian politics. It’s machine has remade Mr. Abbas from a little-appreciated Arafat deputy to a campaign front-runner.

The party is divided between an establishment considered to be corrupt and frustrated upstart activists.

The reform of the Palestinian security establishment will force Mr. Abbas to consolidate about a dozen security agencies into three, an overhaul that will alienate many Fatah commanders. He must figure out how to absorb the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a scattered affiliation of cells responsible for terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens and vigilante violence against Palestinians, into the government.

“Let me tell you this, Fatah has a pathological sickness,” said Eyad Sarraj, a Gaza human rights activist jailed for criticizing Mr. Arafat. “If Fatah is not restructured, rehabilitated and have a new strategy, and does not have democratization, then we in Palestine will go into another chaotic time.”

No less difficult for Mr. Abbas will be handling Hamas, which has used suicide bombings and crude rockets fired from Gaza into Israel to gain popularity as leaders of the Palestinians and to destabilize periods of calm. Hamas has boycotted the election, leaving it an opening to veto any progress in relations with Israel.

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