RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — It may seem like an unlikely candidacy, but intifada leader Marwan Barghouthi's decision to run for the Palestinian presidency from his Israeli jail cell is turning a lackluster race into a potential battle of generations.
It is also sending shockwaves through the ruling Fatah movement.
Mr. Barghouthi's backers say his candidacy aims to underscore support for the continuation of armed attacks against Israeli settlers and soldiers alongside possible diplomacy, as opposed to Fatah candidate Mahmoud Abbas's call to end the armed intifada. Moreover, it empowers a younger generation of activists largely excluded by the old guard that arrived from exile with Yasser Arafat after the 1993 Oslo agreement, they say.
"Barghouthi believes the authority should be shared with the young generation of nationalist people who suffered and fought the occupation," says Ziad Abu Ayn, a Barghouthi associate and member of the Fatah Higher Committee in the West Bank. "This does not mean replacing the [old guard] but a sharing of the running of the Palestinian Authority and the negotiations with Israel."
Political ferment is also palpable in Israel, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looks toward a national unity government with the Labor party after dismissing the secularist Shinui party from his coalition in a dispute over budget allocations for an ultraorthodox party. Analysts say that in the coming weeks Mr. Sharon will probably be able to overcome opposition within his Likud party, reach an alliance with Labor, and also forge a pact with the ultraorthodox Torah Judaism party. This, they say, would give him a coalition of 67 out of the 120-seat Knesset and enable him to avoid early elections, setting back Gaza withdrawal plans.
In Ramallah, Palestinian observers say Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will still take the election, but that Barghouthi, running as an independent, may be able to draw away enough votes to undercut Abbas's ability to claim a clear mandate.
"This puts the pressure on Abu Mazen," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for International Affairs. "Winning 40 percent will not make him a winner. If it is not 65 to 70 percent, he will come up short. He will have to fight for every vote. He will have to wake up and meet the Palestinian street."
In style, the two leading candidates are a study in contrasts, with Barghouthi a firebrand and Abbas a reserved man who worked in Arafat's shadow for most of his career. Mr. Abu Ayn says that being unable to campaign will not handicap Barghouthi because "the people know him already."
In Mr. Abdul-Hadi's view, the challenge for Abbas will be whether he can convince the public that internal reforms, rule of law, and talks with Sharon can better their situation. He is battling the view that nothing can be gained from Sharon and therefore armed intifada should continue. Besides Barghouthi and Abbas, eight other candidates are contesting the race, among them Mustafa Barghouthi, a democracy activist and distant relative of Marwan, and Hassan Khreisheh, the deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas is boycotting the election.
Barghouthi was a strong supporter of the Oslo agreement and advocate of a two-state solution with Israel. But, says Abu Ayn, he became disillusioned by Israeli policies, particularly settlement expansion. With the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Barghouthi became its foremost proponent, asserting that people under occupation have the right to resist violently. He was arrested in 2002 and convicted by an Israeli court of murder, attempted murder for attacks that led to the killing of five people. The court sentenced him to 150 years. He said he was not involved in violence and, shouting out in Hebrew during his trial, said he supports peace with Israel provided there is an end to occupation.
But his foray into the Jan. 9 election is eliciting negative reaction in Fatah. "I believe Barghouthi has miscalculated and my advice to him would be to withdraw and to push for Abbas," says Mohammed Hourani, a young reformist legislator.
Mohammed Dandan, a spokesman for the al-Aksa Brigades militia in the West Bank is also urging Barghouthi to withdraw. "We call upon Marwan to give up his attempt and thereby increase the chances of Abu Mazen," he said. Palestinian analyst Khader Abu Abarra believes, however, that some Fatah elements may eventually back Barghouthi if he remains in the race. "We are going to see confusion. There will be two major centers of power, with each trying to draw attention and power to itself."
"I think the motivation that pushed Barghouthi to run was he was worried he would be ignored in prison," Abu Abarra adds. "He said to himself 'this will keep me alive on the scene and put pressure on the new leadership to try to help release me.'"