Barghuti says he will not stand in Palestinian leadership election

11-26-2004, 19h01

Jailed West Bank militant leader Marwan Barghuti announced he not would run in next year's Palestinian leadership election, heading off a potentially damaging rift in the dominant Fatah faction.

In a statement read for him by Palestinian minister without portfolio Qaddura Fares in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Barghuti called instead for Palestinians to support Fatah's official candidate, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chief Mahmud Abbas, in the January 9 election.

"Members and supporters of Fatah (must) support the movement's candidate, the combattant, brother Mahmud Abbas," read Fares, who visited Barghuti in his Israeli prison cell earlier Friday.

Speculation had been rife that Barghuti, serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli prison, would announce formally his decision to stand in the vote to choose a successor to veteran leader Yasser Arafat, posing a direct challenge to Abbas.

Fatah, the movement headed by Arafat until his death two weeks ago, said Friday it would hold its first internal elections in 16 years next August in what was seen as a gesture to Barghuti and his supporters.

The intense political bargaining that led to Barghuti's statement came as the international community was engaged in a new efforts to revive peace efforts after the death of Arafat, and is pushing for a smooth transition of power at the head of the Palestinian Authority.

A series of top Western leaders have swung through the region in recent days to pledge support for the Palestinian election and the internationally-drafted peace roadmap, including US Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Opinion polls show the 45-year-old Barghuti as the most popular Palestinian after Arafat, particularly among the young who want to see new blood in Fatah and regard Abbas as a member of the old guard.

A source in Barghuti's entourage told AFP that his potential candidacy had angered Abbas, a Fatah stalwart who stepped into Arafat's shoes as PLO chief two week ago.

Barghuti's initial intention to stand for the Palestinian Authority was announced just a few hours before a meeting of the Fatah revolutionary council that endorsed Abbas as its official candidate.

The 69-year-old Abbas had also been designated by the Fatah central committee -- the party's highest institution.

Israel had insisted that Barghuti -- who was sentenced to five life terms by an Israeli court last June for his involvement in deadly attacks -- "would serve his sentence in full."

"Israel is a constitutional state. We're not talking of a political prisoner but of a man who was sentenced to life imprisonment... he will serve his sentence in full," said an official from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office.

Speculation over Barghuti's possible candidacy had been rife since Arafat's death, although observers acknowledge that he would have had a hard time overseeing Palestinian affairs from an Israeli cell.

Fatah's so-called young guard, many of whom have been involved in the Palestinian on the ground, have long sought an infusion of new blood in the party, including the organization of long-due internal elections.

Many believed that Barghuti was simply not prepared to divide the Fatah leadership.

In a message issued immediately after Arafat's death, Barghuti insisted on the need for Palestinians to "retain our national unity".