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Al-Barghuthi 'told' to drop candidacy
Imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan al-Barghuthi has come under pressure from his Fatah faction to drop potentially divisive plans to run for Palestinian president from his Israeli jail cell.
Fatah officials said Palestinian cabinet minister Qaddura Faris, a member of the faction, visited al-Barghuthi in prison on Friday to try to dissuade him from challenging its presidential nominee, former prime minister Mahmud Abbas.
There was no immediate word on whether Faris persuaded al-Barghuthi to change his mind.
"The door before Marwan is closed now, after the decision of the Fatah Central Committee to nominate [Abbas]," said Hatim Abd al-Qadir, a Fatah official and legislator.
"If he runs as independent candidate, Fatah will lose votes to other factions and this also may create divisions inside the movement," Abd al-Qadir said.
Fatah officials said on Thursday that al-Barghuthi, 45, had decided to run in the 9 January election to choose a successor to the late Yasir Arafat, but an official announcement would be made only after further consultations.
Aljazeera's Ram Allah correspondent Shirin Abu Akla, however, said it had not been confirmed that al-Barghuthi was intending to run and outlined that Faris's visit would shed light on the issue.
Al-Barghouthi's candidacy could throw the election wide open and pose a dramatic challenge to Abbas, 69, now caught in the glare of the charismatic al-Barghuthi's popular appeal with Palestinians.
As an independent candidate, he could score many votes inside and outside the movement particularly among youths. It was his particulare influence among the younger cadre of Palestinian movements that prompted a move to convince him to renege on including his candidacy, Abu Akla said.
A behind-bars bid to succeed Arafat could also bring international pressure on Israel to free al-Barghuthi, sentenced in June by an Israeli criminal court to five life terms after it convicted him of involvement in the killings of Israelis.
At his trial in Tel Aviv, al-Barghuthi said he was a political leader with no involvement in violence.
Abbas, who took over the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation after Arafat's death on 11 November, is favoured as a future peacemaker by Israel and the United States.
Before heading to southern Israel to see al-Barghuthi, Faris met Abbas, who Abd al-Qadir said repeated a promise to press the Israeli government to release him.
A senior Fatah official said Abbas could also persuade al-Barghuthi to stand down by promising to hold internal elections within the faction, the largest in the PLO, to give its "young guard" a stronger voice.
Al-Barghuthi was the main voice of a revolt for an independent Palestinian state after peace negotiations collapsed in 2000 and has long been seen as a potential successor to Arafat.
Palestinian political analysts predicted he would stand a good chance of winning the ballot, drawing support from mainstream voters as well as from Islamists who oppose Abbas's call to end the uprising.
Passionate and articulate, the bearded and diminutive al-Barghuthi has also advocated peace with Israel, making his case for an end to occupation in the West Bank and Gaza in near-perfect Hebrew learned during previous jail stints.
Prominent Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti was said to be under pressure both to run for Palestinian Authority chairman and decline the candidacy as he met with Israeli Arab Knesset member Jamal Zahalka (Balad) in his Israeli prison cell on Friday.
The MK met Barghouti Friday afternoon to find out whether the Fatah leader intends to run for chairman as an independent candidate or to support former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, named this week as Fatah's official candidate for the post.
The two discussed the political situation in the Palestinian Authority, and Barghouti's possible candidacy.
At the end of the meeting Zahalka refused to report the decision regarding the candidacy, but said Barghouti has yet to declare it officially.
The MK said that Barghouti is under pressure from both sides and that he was consulting with his aides on the subject.
A member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Kadoura Fares, will hold a press conference at the end of a meeting of Fatah leaders in the West Bank city of Ramallah and may announce Barghouti's decision then. Zahalka will also attend the meeting.
Elections to the PA chairmanship will be held on January 9 and were called following the death of Yasser Arafat two weeks ago.
Before the meeting Zahalka said that "the Palestinian leadership needs Marwan Barghouti as a key figure who could stabilize the situation after Arafat in any serious negotiations with Israel."
Barghouti "has to be immediately released," he added.
Barghouti, considered the leader of Fatah's "young guard," is serving five life terms for the murder of five Israelis during the current intifada.
The meeting was also attended by Fares, one of Barghouti's closest associates.
Fares, who has received permission from the Israel Prisons Service to visit him, planned to persuade Barghouti not to run, Israel Radio reported Friday.
MK Ahmed Tibi (Hadash) was also slated to meet Barghouti but decided at the last minute to cancel, saying that he didn't believe that meeting Barghouti days after the Fatah named a different candidate was a wise step.
Tibi said he wished to take part in campaign for Barghouti's release from prison "away from the eyes of the media."
Hatem Abdel Kader, another Barghouti associate, said he and other Fatah members also intend to meet with Barghouti to try to persuade him not to run, but it is not yet clear whether they will all be allowed to visit.
Barghouti's associates also said he was furious over the fact that Abbas was chosen as the party's nominee by the tiny central committee, which includes no members of the younger generation, rather than by a broader party forum - and moreover, at a meeting that Abbas himself chaired.
Nevertheless, they said, Barghouti sees Fatah as his home and has no intention of leaving the party.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has granted Arab MKs permission to visit Barghouti as well, despite some officials' reluctance to let Israel appear to intervene in Palestinian elections, according to Israel Radio.
Nevertheless, senior Israeli officials said that even if Barghouti decides to run for PA chairman, he won`t be let out of prison, the radio reported.
As of Thursday night, confusion reigned regarding Barghouti's true intentions. People close to Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, said he intended to run against Abbas, and some of Barghouti's associates said he had informed them, through his lawyers, that he would run.
"He has decided to run for president," said a Fatah official who said he had spoken with a lawyer of Barghouti's. "An official announcement will be made within 24 hours."
Abdel Rahman Shomali, a Fatah official, said he would distribute a statement by Barghouti later. A top Fatah official, Amin Maqboul, also said he was informed of Barghouti's decision to run.
But other associates of Barghouti's said he does not intend to run, as he does not want a frontal confrontation with Abbas.
Barghouti's associates said Thursday night that they have already collected the 5,000 signatures needed to register him as a candidate, but have not yet submitted them to the Central Elections Commission. December 1 is the last date on which his candidacy can be registered with the commission, so he will have to make up his mind whether to run within the next few days.
However, his associates added, if Barghouti does decide not to run, it will not be because he views Abbas as a long-term Palestinian leader. Rather, he views Abbas's appointment as a necessary evil - a temporary caretaker who will hold the party together until its institutions have been reformed and it can elect "a new leadership that will be acceptable to all circles within the organization," in the words of one associate.
Abbas was officially nominated as Fatah's candidate Thursday by the Fatah Revolutionary Council, after the party's 17-member central committee had recommended his nomination earlier this week. The election for a new PA chairman is scheduled to take place on January 9. So far, seven people have announced that they intend to run against Abbas as independent candidates.
The Revolutionary Council's decision followed several days of controversy in which younger Fatah members, many of them close to Barghouti, protested the way the party's candidate was being chosen. This group had demanded that the choice of candidate be combined with a move to implement reforms aimed at making the movement more democratic. It held conferences in Ramallah and Bethlehem, but ultimately decided not to enter into a frontal confrontation with Abbas and the old guard that he represents. It therefore also dropped earlier threats to boycott January's chairmanship election if its demands were not met.
One of the group's principal demands was for a change in the composition of the central committee, which is made up entirely of older Fatah members who spent years in exile in Lebanon and Tunisia before returning to the territories after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. The young guard wanted the committee to immediately appoint five new members from among the younger generation that grew up in the territories and has lived all its life under Israeli rule. Later, it also wanted general elections within Fatah to choose new members for all the party's institutions.