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In election, Abbas steps out of Arafat's shadow

He is the front-runner as Palestinians vote Sunday for a new president.

By Ben Lynfield / January 7, 2005


A campaign poster of Fatah candidate Mahmoud Abbas, looking for a landslide victory in Sunday's Palestinian presidential election, shows him standing shoulder to shoulder with Yasser Arafat.

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The two gaze confidently ahead, under the caption: "On your path, we will fulfill the Palestinian dream."

Associating himself with Arafat's legacy may be a good way to attract votes. Yet during his campaign, which ends Friday, Mr. Abbas has also staked out distinct positions as he struggles to emerge from Arafat's shadow. He called for an end to the armed intifada, and Thursday in Nablus said his first priority after the election would be to restart peace negotiations with Israel.

But this campaign has not been without combative overtones and the emotive symbolism of militants. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, reached out to young voters by riding on the shoulders of wanted gunmen during visits to refugee camps where he vowed to defend fugitives.

He promised that militants will be persuaded rather than coerced into a cease-fire and invoked the hard-line epithet of Israel as "the Zionist enemy" after a tank shell killed seven Palestinians Tuesday. Yet hours later, speaking to a Ramallah audience, he condemned a Hamas rocket attack in which Israeli civilians were killed. "If we are attacked we defend ourselves, but we do not do something to kill innocent people," he said.

"The greatest thing he is to be credited for is being candid and frank," says Hisham Ahmed, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University. "I think it will cost him some votes."

Hamas, which is not fielding a candidate but has stopped short of calling for an election boycott, joined with six other Palestinian factions this week in condemning Abbas's remarks over the rocket firings. Abbas called the firings pointless and added "they usually fall in the desert or on our houses, killing our children."

Hamas spokesman Mushir Masri said: "Instead of marketing himself to the Americans, Europeans, and Israelis, Abu Mazen should support his own people. The Palestinian leadership should be on the side of the resistance."

Israel, for its part, "will judge Abbas by what he does, not by the words he utters in an election," says Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "After the election, we will demand that he unequivocally take the necessary steps to stop terrorist activity and incitement and dismantle the terrorist organizations."

Associates and analysts say electoral politics did not come naturally to the reserved Abbas, who cofounded Fatah with Arafat and played a role behind the scenes in the Palestinian Liberation Organization. A short stint as PLO prime minister in 2003 did little to undo the sense of him as a technocrat lacking the common touch.

Although respected by the international community, Abbas tallied only a 2 percent popularity rating in an opinion poll four months ago. But becoming Fatah's candidate for the presidency has forced him to finally meet the Palestinian street.

"This man was used to delivering lectures," his campaign manager, Mohammed Shtayyeh told reporters. "I think we are helping him turn into a speech deliverer who can go into refugee camps and speak to people [there]."