TEL AVIV — Marwan Barghouti, the popular militant leader imprisoned by Israel for his role in the Palestinian uprising, is relaying messages to new PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that could lead to a deal on the new Palestinian leadership, a party insider said yesterday.
Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is favored by the Fatah establishment as the party’s candidate to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian president in Jan. 9 elections.
But friends and relatives are hinting at a challenge by Mr. Barghouti, who has the backing of Fatah’s younger grass-roots activists and militants who seek more influence in the party’s affairs.
A confrontation between the two could split the party that has dominated Palestinian politics for 36 years under Mr. Arafat’s leadership. That, in turn, would strengthen Islamic militants and doom any peace talks with Israel.
However, a solid endorsement from Mr. Barghouti would virtually assure Mr. Abbas a victory and open the way for political favors to Mr. Barghouti and his followers in the future.
Hafez Barghouti, the editor of the Fatah newspaper Al Hayat Al Jadidah, said the imprisoned militant sent an overture to Mr. Abbas in a verbal message communicated through Mr. Barghouti’s attorney.
“I exchanged messages with him. I am working on a solution,” said the editor, who is not related to his imprisoned namesake. “It is good to be united. Fatah needs a statesman like Abu Mazen and a leader with charisma like Marwan.”
Mr. Abbas is a PLO founder and a seasoned veteran of peace talks with Israel, but his criticism of the use of violence in the Palestinian uprising has made him unpopular among more militant party members.
Opinion polls have shown Mr. Barghouti’s approval rating second only to that of Mr. Arafat, but he has never held a senior position within Fatah.
At the same time, the militant is credited with using his prestige to broker an agreement with militants last year to halt attacks on Israel while Mr. Abbas sought concessions through the U.S.-sponsored “road map” peace plan.
Barghouti, who was convicted of murder by an Israeli court and sentenced to life imprisonment, is said to feel that the Fatah establishment has ignored him.
Fatah activist Ziyad Abu Ain said Barghouti’s supporters would demand a primary-style vote to choose the Fatah candidate if the party’s central committee and revolutionary council were to ignore Barghouti’s candidacy.
“The Fatah movement is not just 15 people on the central committee and 100 people on the revolutionary council,” he said. “The Fatah movement is millions of people. We will go to the roots of the Fatah movement and speak with them.”
Earlier this week, former Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan told The Washington Times that the Fatah leadership had already settled on Mr. Abbas as the party candidate. The Palestinian constitution calls for elections to be held within 60 days after the death of the president.
Mr. Abbas “is one of the historical leaders, is open-minded, and believes in the peace process,” Mr. Dahlan said.
But observers say Mr. Abbas has no control over the street or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the militant wing of Fatah. A deal with Mr. Barghouti would make it much easier for him to keep the party’s young guard in line.
“Fatah is more like a tribe. Fatah is not an ideology,” said Said Zeydani, a political scientist at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. “It was started as a political party, but it ended up being a collection of individuals. What keeps them together is interests, the leaders, and the resistance to Israel.”