Thursday, November 25, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Jailed militant Marwan Barghouti told associates yesterday that he was going to run for the Palestinian Authority presidency, sharpening a power struggle to succeed Yasser Arafat.

One Fatah official had said the party would not back Barghouti, 45, even though he is the second most popular Palestinian figure after Mr. Arafat.

The official said Fatah upstarts had decided to back off after being convinced that the party could not afford a bruising primary battle, leaving interim leader Mahmoud Abbas, 69, in the lead.

Mr. Abbas is a pragmatist who appears to have the tacit support of Israel and the United States.

But Barghouti informed his associates yesterday, through his attorneys, that he would run, the Associated Press reported. Election for a new Palestinian Authority president is set for Jan. 9.

Barghouti’s defiant statement could again pit the old guard of politicians that had returned with Mr. Arafat from exile against the younger generation of activists who led two uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“If we go with a second candidate, even with Marwan, we will split Fatah into two — two generations,” warned Ziad Abu Ain, a Barghouti supporter from Fatah.

“And this is not the time. People think that it’s the time to be more united, it’s not the time to be divided.”

Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli jail for his role in attacks on Israelis.

If he were to stay out of the race, it would nearly assure an Abbas victory, polls show. Militant group Hamas, the only other potential rival, isn’t expected to present a challenger.

But this has not galvanized Fatah, a party brimming with generational, territorial and personal rivalries that observers say operates more like a tribe than an ideological movement. Whereas Mr. Arafat was a symbol the party rallied around, Mr. Abbas is a figure of controversy.

Fatah’s young guard, dozens of activists in their 30s to 40s, have been holding marathon meetings this week in Bethlehem and Ramallah to decide whether to throw their weight behind Barghouti or honor the conclusion of the party’s highest decision-making body to nominate Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

“We’ve had some negotiation internally and there were different opinions,” said Mohammed Hourani, a Palestinian legislator identified with the younger activists who supported Mr. Abbas because of his seniority in the party and his experience as a peace negotiator.

Still, Mr. Hourani acknowledged: “There is a misunderstanding about [Abbas’] image.”

Mr. Abbas’ short stint as prime minister last year hurt his standing among the Palestinian public. He is criticized for a speech at the June summit in Aqaba, Jordan, formalizing the U.S.-led “road map” peace initiative in which he acknowledged the suffering of the Jewish people but made little reference to Palestinian hardship.

His vocal opposition to the militarization of the intifada, or insurgency, made him unpopular with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed wing of the Fatah that executes suicide bombings and even enforces its own law in some cities.

Militants have threatened violence against Mr. Abbas should he comply with Israeli and U.S. demands to disarm militias.

“We have no trust in Abu Mazen whatsoever,” said an Al Aqsa member who called himself Abu Amiad. “From our past experience, he represents the camp of surrender. He is burned on the Palestinian street.”

Mr. Abbas is identified with Arafat contemporaries who relocated from Tunis, Tunisia, to the Palestinian territories 10 years ago after the Oslo peace accords.

Resentment against Fatah’s senior generation has built slowly amid accusations of corruption, financial mismanagement, and a centralization of authority by the older guard.

Fatah’s young guard is pushing for a reform of party institutions that would break open the monopoly on power held by the elders. The decision of the party’s 15-member central committee to nominate Mr. Abbas last week was the latest move that frustrated the upstart politicians.

“None of us are against Abu Mazen. We don’t think he is a bad man. We think he is historically important,” said Abu Ain.

“We are against the central committee and how it is decided. There is a lot of anger in the Fatah movement in the towns and villages about its behavior.”

Palestinians inside and outside Fatah recognize that the Barghouti candidacy has become a lightning rod for this broader disaffection with the movement.

Mr. Abu Ain said he and many other activists would join Barghouti if he decided to run as an independent.

But Mr. Hourani said that despite Mr. Abbas’ failure to electrify, Fatah members are placing their trust in his seniority and his experience inside the Palestinian establishment.

“He is a man of institutions, and he works through the law,” Mr. Hourani said. “He will not have the unity of Arafat, but he will have the majority.”

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