Official: Abbas offers internal Fatah elections in apparent effort to persuade Barghouti to withdraw

Thursday, November 25th 2004, 4:36 pm
By: News On 6

BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) _ The interim Palestinian leader promised to set a date for internal elections in the ruling Fatah movement, a Cabinet minister said Friday, in an apparent attempt to persuade the head of Fatah's restless young guard to drop out of the Jan. 9 presidential race.

The leader of the younger Fatah activists, Marwan Barghouti, told associates on Thursday that he intends to run for Palestinian Authority president. He has not yet issued a formal statement.

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

Barghouti, an uprising leader jailed by Israel, is one of the most popular Palestinian politicians. His candidacy would undercut the prospects of interim leader Mahmoud Abbas, a pragmatist who opposes violence and appears to have the tacit support of Israel and the United States. Abbas was nominated as presidential candidate by Fatah this week.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Kadoura Fares met with Barghouti at Nafha Prison in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba on Friday to deliver a message from Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

Fares, who is close to Barghouti, said he met with Abbas before the prison visit. ``He (Abbas) asked me what Marwan wants,'' Fares said. ``I told him (Abbas) that Marwan has no personal demands. He represents a generation and this generation wants to see him as president.''

Fares said Abbas asked him to relay a message to Barghouti that a date for a general Fatah conference, including elections for all Fatah bodies, would be set within 24 hours. Such a conference has been a long-standing demand by the young guard, which had largely been excluded from power by Yasser Arafat.

Abbas, 69, also wanted to let Barghouti know that he will be an important member of the Palestinian leadership, and that ``nothing will be done without consulting him,'' Fares said before his meeting with Barghouti.

Barghouti is serving five life terms for what Israel says was his role in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk. Barghouti, a Palestinian legislator, has denied involvement.

Barghouti's apparent bid sharpened the power struggle in Fatah, pitting the old guard of politicians like Abbas, who returned with Arafat from exile in 1994, against the younger activists who led two uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat ruled Fatah for nearly 40 years.

Late Thursday, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, endorsed the Abbas nomination. Palestinian official Tayeb Abdel Rahim said this was the final approval, making Abbas ``the only candidate of the Fatah movement.''

Barghouti would have to stand as an independent, threatening a split in the Fatah vote that could even propel an outside candidate into the presidency.

Not all members of the young guard supported Barghouti. Amin Maqboul, one of the younger leaders, said Friday that Barghouti's bid could weaken Fatah, and that ``someone else could win this election from the outside.''

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

However, Israel appeared to be signaling Friday that it is easing Barghouti's prison conditions. In addition to Fares, Israeli Arab legislator Jamal Sahalka also visited Barghouti on Friday. In the past, legislators had complained about restricted access. Officials in Israel's Prisons Authority declined comment.

Both 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. 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 was the West Bank leader of Fatah when he was captured in the city of Ramallah by Israeli forces in April 2002. He has been in Israeli custody since.

Before the current round of violence erupted in September 2000, Barghouti was known as a moderate, advocating creation of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. He speaks fluent Hebrew and had frequent contact with Israeli peace activists.

However, even his Israeli backers discerned a change in his tone after the current uprising began. His public statements were more strident, encouraging resistance against the Israelis, and he refused to denounce attacks. During his trial, Israel charged that he was directly involved in deadly attacks, but Barghouti insisted he was a political activist not linked to violence.