As two prominent Palestinian leaders announced plans to seek the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in elections Jan. 9 — one representing the younger generation and the other the “old guard” — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon worked to keep his government in office while vowing to run for re-election should new elections be necessary next spring.
The wild card in the Palestinian election is the charismatic Marwan Barghouti, the most popular Palestinian leader today who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in the killing of five Israelis. His supporters say he sent them a letter declaring his candidacy, according to the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
Barghouti was sentenced in July and Israel has said it would not release him even if he won the election.
These developments occurred as Sharon assured Secretary of State Colin Powell that Israel would do everything it could to help facilitate the Palestinian election, short of compromising Israeli security. That included allowing Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote, redeploying Israeli troops stationed in the territories and limiting the number of road closures and checkpoints.
In an Israeli TV interview, Powell said that after speaking with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders he had detected an “understanding that an opportunity has presented itself” to move forward on the road map to peace.
Sharon’s planned withdrawal next year of 8,000 settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip, plus another 600 from four northern West Bank settlements, was widely seen as also advancing the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process. Although Sharon envisioned it as a unilateral action, he said this week that he would coordinate it with the Palestinian Authority provided it stopped the poisonous hatred against Israelis heard daily in classrooms and on Palestinian TV.
But not everyone is confident the withdrawal will take place as scheduled beginning next May. Eli Moyal, mayor of the Israeli community of Sderot, which lies about a half-mile east of the Gaza Strip, said he believes Israeli elections will be held in April or May that would delay or cancel the withdrawal.
Sharon is currently governing with a minority government and Moyal said he does not believe he can hold it together much longer.
“The major issue of the election would be the disengagement plan,” Moyal told The Jewish Week during a visit here Monday.
Moyal, who has been mayor of Sderot since 1998 and is a member of Sharon’s Likud Party, said his community’s 25,000 residents are strongly opposed to the withdrawal.
He said Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip have fired more than 400 mortar shells at his community since April 2001, killing four. If Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip as part of the withdrawal, it would become a “terror state controlled by nobody.”
“There is no Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip,” Moyal pointed out, saying that such terrorist groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad rule the area.
“There is a need for a strong Palestinian leadership that will take control of the land we are about to leave,” he said, adding that he believes Sharon should delay the withdrawal until a new Palestinian leadership is selected and decides what path it chooses to pursue.
Former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, expected by many to win the Palestinian election and become the successor to Yasir Arafat, who died Nov. 11 of unknown causes, announced Tuesday that if elected he would chart a course similar to that of Arafat. He said he would insist on a Palestinian state erected on the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return for about 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
The right of return is the one issue that all political leaders in Israel oppose because such an influx of Palestinian would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
In remarks Tuesday at a memorial for Arafat in the Palestinian parliament, Abbas was quoted as saying: “We promise you [Arafat] that our heart will not rest until we achieve the right of return for our people and end the tragic refugee issue.”
Abbas has been appointed chairman of the PLO and its Fatah executive committee chose him Tuesday to be its candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority.
The challenge of Barghouti presents a dilemma for Israel. Danny Rubenstein, the Arab affairs correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, told a conference call organized by the Israel Policy Forum that Barghouti could be freed as part of a “global exchange of prisoners” that would include Israeli prisoners in Lebanon, Egypt and Jonathan Pollard in the United States, who has been in prison for 19 years.
“The question is whether it would be good for [Israel] that he would be the Palestinian leader,” Rubenstein said of Barghouti.
Barghouti, 45, is seen as the leader of the Fatah “young guard.” Abbas, 69, is seen as a leader of the “old guard” who was in exile with Arafat until they both returned following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Meanwhile, an Israeli group has been launched to derail the Gaza withdrawal plan, according to Shaul Goldstein, head of the Gush Etzion regional council. The group, called Connected, was created with the assistance of the Yesha Council, which represents 230,000 settlers in the West Bank as well as those in the Gaza Strip.
Goldstein, in an interview here, said he and co-chairman Menachem Granit, plan to have their group’s supporters “knock on the door of each person” in Israel — 1.2 million homes — to convince people to oppose the withdrawal.
“We hope 5 to 10 percent of them will hang a banner on their patio with our message — ‘I’m Connecting, Sharon is Disengaging,’” he said. “We are also making student clubs to fight the plan.”
Goldstein said he too believes the plan will not win final government approval in March and that there will be elections as early as May.
In the meantime, plans are being made for the Palestinian election, and world leaders are descending on Israel and the West Bank to speak with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected next month.
Powell conveyed his upbeat assessment about peace prospects to world leaders Tuesday at a Red Sea conference. And he told them that President George W. Bush had pledged to concentrate on furthering the peace process during his second term.
“We are all encouraged,” said United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said the UN would provide election monitors.
The European Union said it too would send monitors, and the U.S., the UN, Russia and the EU have promised to help the Palestinians pay for the election. The Bush administration said it was sending $20 million.