At Yasser Arafat anniversary, Palestinians lament loss of former leader and unity

Palestinians marked the five-year anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death amid what may be their toughest political struggle in years.

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP
A Palestinian woman holds a picture of Yasser Arafat during a rally commemorating the fifth anniversary of his death in the West Bank city of in Ramallah on Wednesday.

Five years after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Palestinians are searching for direction in the midst of what may be the most difficult political era since Mr. Arafat oversaw the Palestinian Authority's inception 15 years ago.

In Ramallah on Wednesday thousands of Palestinians gathered to mark the five-year anniversary of Arafat's death and to express support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who announced last week that he will not seek to hold office again in next year's elections.

But Palestinians within the Fatah movement led by Mr. Abbas are still trying to convince him otherwise, as are others across the region. In the past two days he has received calls from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, urging him to stay on, officials in Abbas' office said.

Abbas insists publicly that the matter is not up for debate and some of his aides suggest that he might even resign before the next elections, which are scheduled for Jan. 24. But many Palestinians doubt he will stick to that date, and some say that the threat to exit the stage is largely a tactical move.

"I think that despite what he says, he will run for the presidency," says Nabil Kukali, a political scientist and pollster in Beit Sahur, near Bethlehem in the West Bank.

"What Abbas is doing is sending out a message to the Israelis, the Americans, and the Europeans: 'I'm not a president for life,' " Dr. Kukali says. "The alternative is a leadership which represents a more radical side of Palestinian politics. Abbas has a very clear agenda for peace and it has a shelf life, and unfortunately the Israelis don't understand that."

Kukali, the director of the Palestinian center for Public Opinion, found in a poll released last week that 82 percent of Palestinians say they miss Arafat and the perception of unity he symbolized.

"Palestinians really miss Arafat, because when he was in charge at least we had one Palestinian people," Kukali says. "Now with this division between Fatah and Hamas it's (as) if we have two peoples in two different states."

Abbas makes jabs at settlements

Abbas told crowds of flag-waving supporters Wednesday that the Palestinians state is already a recognized fact and that Palestinians are just "engaged in a fierce political battle over its borders." He also made pointed comments about settlement building, which seemed a direct challenge to the spin that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put on the issue. Mr. Netanyahu says that the Palestinian demand to stop settlement building amounts to laying out preconditions that were never set in the past.

"We cannot go to negotiations without a framework," Abbas said. "And we say the framework is UN resolutions, meaning a return to the 1967 borders," he said, referring to the 1967 war in which Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. "What's new in this demand? We want a full stop to settlements, including natural growth and in Jerusalem," Abbas said.

Abbas said that resuming negotiations requires an Israeli halt to all settlement activity, including natural growth and settlement activity in Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed and considers its eternal capital.

Ballot could be postponed until June

During his speech, Abbas reiterated his promise not to run for reelection. Though the vote is scheduled for January, other Palestinian sources say that Hamas and Fatah may actually be heading for a breakthrough and could sign an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation plan that calls for elections next June.

On Wednesday, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council Aziz Dweik, told the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper that Hamas will sign the reconciliation plan before the end of November, paving the way to elections next June. Fatah officials have been ready to sign the Egyptian document for several months.

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