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Barghouti withdrawal leaves Abbas with clear path to succeed Arafat
Marwan Barghouti, the jailed West Bank militia commander, said last night that he would not run to succeed Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian president.
He urged his supporters to vote for Mahmoud Abbas, the 69-year-old transitional leader, who was nominated on Thursday as the official candidate of Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority.
Fatah said earlier that it would hold its first internal leadership elections since 1989 on 9 January. Members would choose a revolutionary council and central committee on Mr Arafat's birthday next August.
The ballot is seen as an attempt to appease the party's restive young guard, activists who grew up under Israeli occupation, and to head off a challenge by Mr Barghouti, 45, their standard-bearer. The "young guard" seek to replace the veteran leaders, many of whom have filled their own pockets after returning from exile with Mr Arafat in 1994.
Despite Mr Barghouti's popularity, a poll taken after Mr Arafat's death two weeks ago found 27 per cent of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians choosing Mr Abbas (popularly known as Abu Mazen) as the person most capable of leading the Palestinian Authority, followed by Mr Barghouti with 15.2 per cent.
Senior party figures, including some of Mr Barghouti's allies, appealed to the younger leader not to split the Fatah vote. But admirers were already printing posters of him in prison fatigues against a background of the Dome of the Rock/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. "His programme will be the programme of resistance with negotiation," said Saad Nimr, who heads the campaign to free Mr Barghouti. "Abu Mazen's programme will be negotiation, but without resistance." In any case, Israel made it clear that it would not free Mr Barghouti, who is serving five life terms after being convicted of murdering four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk. His incarceration was a judicial, not a political, matter, a spokesman said.
Nominations for the presidential poll close on Wednesday, 1 December. Two fringe candidates - Abdel Sattar Qassem and Mr Barghouti's cousin, Mustafa - have also thrown their hats into the ring.
With Israel's consent, Marwan Barghouti met Palestinian legislator Kadoura Fares, one of his closest associates, and Jamal Zahalka, a radical Arab member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in his Beersheba prison cell yesterday. Mr Fares said last night that, in the interest of party unity, Mr Barghouti would not run.
Palestinian commentators suggested that Mr Barghouti was putting down a marker for the future by hinting at presidential ambitions, and warning Mr Abbas not to be complacent. At best, the "young guard" view the colourless transitional leader as a caretaker who will hold Fatah together and reform its institutions.
Saeb Erekat, the chief peace negotiator with Israel, said last night that elections were essential for building national institutions. "Fatah needs elections," he said. "Many young faces will emerge."
The ballot was proposed by Ahmad Qureia, the Prime Minister, himself one of the despised old guard. It remains to be seen whether the young foot-soldiers of the intifada will wait another nine months.