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Palestinian candidate supports talks, violence

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Marwan Barghouthi, the jailed Palestinian lawmaker and presidential candidate, will try to turn next month's election into a referendum on the four-year-old Palestinian uprising by pledging more attacks against Israel alongside efforts to revive negotiations, according to family members and supporters involved in his campaign.

By promising to combine violence and diplomacy, Barghouthi, 45, hopes to distinguish himself from the other leading candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, and assume the mantle of Yasser Arafat, the long-serving Palestinian leader who died last month.

Abbas, 69, Arafat's deputy for decades, has condemned suicide bombings and other attacks as "terrorism" and is trying to persuade militant groups to abide by a truce.

If both men hold to those positions, the Jan. 9 ballot for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority could mark the first time the public gets a chance to decide whether to press ahead with the intifadah or to end it, as polls suggest many Palestinians are ready to do. The violence has taken a heavy economic and political toll and led to the deaths of more than 3,000 Palestinians, most of them in clashes with Israeli troops, as well as 1,000 Israelis, mostly in suicide bombings within Israel.

Though his imprisonment raises doubts about how he could serve as president if he does win, Barghouthi is running neck and neck with Abbas, according to two surveys conducted recently in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and published yesterday.

Both Barghouthi and Abbas are members of Fatah, the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but they represent different generations and different approaches.

"Marwan believes resistance and negotiations should be waged in parallel tracks," said Barghouthi's brother, Muqbel, in a recent interview in Ramallah. "By running for president, he gives Palestinians the option to vote for resistance with negotiations or for just negotiations, as Abu Mazen has promised," he said, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

Muqbel Barghouthi said his brother decided to run for president because he felt the world was portraying Arafat since his death as a terrorist and the intifadah as a gush of senseless violence.

Instead of correcting the misrepresentation, he said, Abbas contributed to it with talk of ending attacks on Israel.

"[Barghouthi] felt if he didn't run, he would help promote the notion that Arafat was to blame [for wrecking peace efforts] and that the intifadah was nothing but terrorism," Muqbel Barghouthi said at the Ramallah office that serves as the headquarters for his brother's campaign.

Reacting to the remarks, Abbas supporters denied the older candidate has said or done anything to tarnish Arafat's legacy, as Barghouthi's supporters assert.

Barghouthi helped lead the intifadah until his arrest by Israel in April 2002. A civilian court convicted him last June of plotting the murder of four Israelis and a Greek monk and sentenced him to five life terms plus 40 years. He is held alone in a cell in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Barghouthi will serve out his term even if he wins the election, raising concern among some Palestinians that a Barghouthi presidency would leave them in political limbo.

But his brother said Barghouthi would probably appoint a vice president to run the daily affairs of the Palestinian Authority.

His candidacy has already caused division in Fatah, and its top leader said yesterday that Barghouthi might be expelled for entering the race.

"As the presidential election draws closer, any Fatah member who goes against decisions of the movement's central committee should resign and his membership would be canceled," Farouk Kadoumi, who succeeded Arafat as head of Fatah, said in Tunis.

He said the faction will send "some brothers" to Barghouthi's prison cell to try to persuade him not to run.

Most prominent Fatah members have endorsed Abbas, who was chosen as the faction's candidate before Barghouthi decided last week to run. Even members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the Fatah-aligned militia Barghouthi helped found at the start of the uprising, are lining up behind Abbas.

But at the Ramallah office, dozens of volunteers showed up to help with the Barghouthi campaign one morning this week, and a Fatah delegation from Qalqilya, a West Bank town north of Ramallah, arrived to voice support.

The Qalqilya group met in a conference room with Barghouthi's wife, Fadwa, who said she has reluctantly become a leading figure in the campaign.

"They wanted to know if Marwan will remain in the race or drop out," she said later. Fatah activists who line up behind Barghouthi realize they will be burning bridges, she said.

"I told them he will stay in through the very end," she said.

The election could be a cliffhanger. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the premier polling organization in the West Bank and Gaza, 38 percent of Palestinians contacted in a recent survey said they plan to vote for Barghouthi, while 40 percent favored Abbas.

Another poll conducted by Bir Zeit University in Ramallah put Barghouthi slightly ahead with 46 percent of the vote compared with 44 percent for Abbas.

But Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian parliament from Gaza and a political analyst, doubted support for Barghouthi would remain so high. Abu Amr said Fatah was closing ranks around Abbas.

"Barghouthi doesn't have that significant a power base of his own," Abu Amr said in an interview. "If you're talking about the protest vote, he'll pick up some support but I can't see it reaching those numbers."

Abu Amr, who was elected to parliament as an independent with no party association, said many Palestinians have grown tired of the intifadah and believe Abbas offers an alternative.

"I don't know how realistic it is to combine the intifadah and negotiations. I think Marwan knows from our experience in the past four years that there were no negotiations while violence was still being used," Abu Amr said.

Surveys in the past year have reflected intifadah fatigue. When the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research asked Palestinians about the uprising on its fourth anniversary in September, 83 percent said they wanted a mutual cessation of violence. And more than half the people surveyed doubted armed attacks against Israelis were effective in confronting settlement expansion.

But, underlining a contradiction that has shown up often in such surveys, the same poll also showed overwhelming support -- nearly 80 percent -- for suicide attacks against Israel.

"People are ready to support the intifadah as long as they believe it will help achieve their objectives," Abu Amr said. "But I think the yearning now is for alternative possibilities."

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