Will Palestinians elect a jailbird president?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Dec. 2 2004 12:00 PM

Chains of Command

Will Palestinians elect a jailbird president?

With the death of Yasser Arafat, Israelis and Palestinians knew to expect an interesting few months, and they will not be disappointed. On the Ramallah side, Marwan Barghouti, head of the Fatah Party in the West Bank, reversed himself at the last minute and decided to run in the Jan. 9 presidential election. The change of heart wrecked the hopes of Mahmoud Abbas, his fellow Fatah Party candidate, for an easy victory. Barghouti had a good reason for asking his wife to file his candidacy papers on his behalf before the Wednesday night deadline: He is currently serving the first of five life sentences in an Israeli prison on charges of terrorism, which he denies.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Ariel Sharon must gather a new political majority after dismissing the Shinui Party from his Cabinet. Sharon's efforts to dismantle settlements in Gaza and an austere budget bill have drawn him increasing fire in the Israeli parliament, and he could risk a vote of no confidence.

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Barghouti first announced his candidacy last Thursday, only to withdraw it a day later under pressure from Fatah Party officials worried about splitting the vote. His decision revitalized Middle Eastern press interest in the Palestinian elections. The Lebanese Daily Star noted that Hamas "indirectly endorsed Barghouti's election bid, saying any Palestinian has the right to run for Palestinian Authority president." The article reported that Barghouti's "spells in Israeli jails have left him fluent in Hebrew but more importantly … he is probably the only Palestinian leader who can deliver the most militant and violent groups, something not even Arafat was able to do." Nevertheless, Hamas is still officially calling for its followers to boycott the elections.

Almost every analysis suggested that Abbas is viewed as a moderate acceptable to Israel and the United States—a known quantity and member of the Arafat "old guard"—while the younger, more aggressive "new guard" Barghouti will sway hard-line Palestinian voters. A Guardian report on Barghouti's candidacy argued that "[f]or the first time on their path to statehood, Palestinian voters are confronted with a real choice." The piece offered a little double-edged optimism for Abbas: "If he defeats Mr Barghouti it will give him a legitimacy he … lacks and weaken accusations from some groups that he is a collaborator."

On the other hand, Israeli papers (when not distracted by their own political crisis) found less to love in Mahmoud Abbas. A Haaretz op-ed said he should be thought of primarily as the man who "[i]n spite of his soft words … was the No. 2 man in the Fatah movement that waged vicious and lethal terror against us." A columnist in the Jerusalem Post thought as much, suggesting that Abbas' "old guard" credentials only mean he's "continuing Arafat's policies aimed, ultimately, at the destruction of Israel."

All this while Ariel Sharon, a man with more influence (though lower polls) in Palestinian politics than most Palestinians, runs the risk of losing his own government in Israel. As coverage in the London Financial Times noted, the defeat of Sharon's budget bill "would normally prompt snap elections." The piece went on to lay out the grim math: Sharon's Likud party holds only 40 of the 120 seats, and while they support his budget bill, they are profoundly dubious about his plans to withdraw settlements from Gaza and the West Bank. Of course, getting fired isn't Sharon's only worry. An op-ed in Haaretz focused on a "serious problem of public ethics." By dismissing his Shinui ministers, Sharon has become the de facto justice minister, which the Haaretz piece suggests might, perhaps, be "inappropriate … when he and his sons are being investigated by the police."

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.

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