JERUSALEM, Israel – Yesterday found Mahmoud Abbas, (aka Abu Mazen), Yasser Arafat's replacement as head of the Palestinian Authority, hot on the campaign trail in the Jenin refugee camp. There Mr. Abbas, the Bush administration's favored candidate in the elections scheduled to take place January 9, spent the afternoon with Zakariah Zubeidi, who is head of the Fatah Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terrorist organization, and one of the top men on the Israeli army's list of wanted terrorists.
Mr. Zubeidi has planned and orchestrated several suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israeli civilians, and has been actively involved in recruiting terrorists and coordinating his operations with the Hezbollah terror group in Iran, and senior international terrorists in Damascus.
In the company of Mr. Zubeidi, Mr. Abbas met with, hugged, and kissed several members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and visited the "Martyrs Cemetery," where he paid homage to the memory of Palestinian Arab terrorists who have been killed over the past four-and-a-half years. During his visit with the terrorists, Mr. Abbas pledged to remain faithful to Arafat's legacy.
To finance the upcoming election, and as a sign of its support for Mr. Abbas, the American government for the first time since 2003 transferred $23.5 million directly to the Palestinian Authority's bank account on Wednesday. The assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, William Burns, said that the funds reflect "our confidence in the direction of the PA's reform program, and our expectation that reform will continue to be implemented energetically." President Bush signed a special waiver enabling the funds to be transferred without congressional approval December 8.
Mr. Abbas is the only candidate that the ruling Fatah party is fielding in the elections. Fatah is the largest faction of the PLO, and was founded by Arafat in 1964. Its members control the PA bureaucracy, security forces, education system, and press.
Initially, the imprisoned Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, who is serving several consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for multiple counts of terrorist murder of Israeli citizens, announced that he was planning on running against Mr. Abbas. But a concerted campaign by Mr. Abbas, supported by America and Israel, caused him to change his mind and pull out of the race in early December.
A Palestinian Arab journalist in the West Bank argues that the pressure exerted on Mr. Barghouti was misplaced. In his view: "The decision to have Abbas run unopposed from within Fatah effectively blocked all possibility of a democratic election that would provide the Palestinians with the opportunity to express their wishes at the ballot box. If Barghouti had won, it would have been a clear signal that they reject peace with Israel and support murderers. If Abbas won in a race against Barghouti, it would have been a clear signal that the Palestinians reject terrorism, since that is what Barghouti represents. The problem with Abbas running unopposed from within Fatah is that he isn't given the opportunity or the challenge of stating clearly if he supports or rejects terrorism, and so we're back to the same unclear situation we had for years with Arafat."
Before Palestinian Arab voters cast their votes, it is clear to all that Mr. Abbas will win the election, but he is still not running unopposed. Six men are running against him. The three most notable challengers are Mustafa Barghouti, Bassam el Salhi, and Tayfeer Khaled, who all reside in Ramallah. One of the problems these men have had campaigning is the Palestinian Arab press, which is under the complete control of the PA, has given almost no coverage to their campaigns.
All three men's platforms, vis-a-vis Israel, are more or less identical to Mr. Abbas's platform. They call for the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with its capital in Jerusalem. They call for the destruction of all Israeli communities in these areas, and demand recognition of the so-called "right of return" of the descendants of Palestinian Arabs who left Israel in 1948 and 1967. None of the three have spent time in Israeli jails, and according to Palestinian Arab sources, they have not been involved in terrorist attacks against Israel.
While their platforms regarding Israel are like Mr. Abbas's, they spend little time discussing Israel. Mr. Abbas's opponents devote the overwhelming majority of their time discussing the need to reform the PA – making it accountable, transparent, and subordinate to the rule of law – democratizing Palestinian Arab society, and developing the Palestinian economy. All are highly critical of the Palestinian Arab security services, which they accuse of being the source of the lawlessness and chaos in the Palestinian Arab areas.
Mustafa Barghouti, a distant cousin of the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, is the most popular among the non-frontrunner candidates. Polls have him enjoying the support of between 10% and 20% of Palestinian Arabs. Mr. Barghouti is a physician and a former communist. He is the founder and head of the Medical Relief Center in Ramallah. He is the Palestinian Arab point man for the American-based, radically anti-Israel International Solidarity Movement, and has led most of the Palestinian Arab demonstrations against Israel's security fence in the West Bank.
At a campaign meeting in Beita village near Nablus on Wednesday, Mr. Barghouti, who has been an outspoken critic of PA corruption, and a strident advocate for democracy for the past two years, spoke of the "Oslo elite" meaning the Arafat associates surrounding Mr. Abbas, who became rich and powerful as a result of the Oslo peace process with Israel.
To a crowd of hundreds of supporters in the communist-leaning village, Mr. Barghouti declared, "The Palestinian people have the right to ask what happened to the $6.5 billion that we received in foreign aid over the past 10 years."
Mr. Barghouti received a push for his campaign on Wednesday when the jailed leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmed Saadat, declared his party's support for Mr. Barghouti. Mr. Saadat is under detention in Jericho for masterminding the assassination of Israel's tourism minister in October 2001.
Bassam el-Falhi is the chairman of the Palestinian Communist Party. Tayfeer Khaled is the West Bank representative of Nayef Hawatweh's Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group, headquartered in Damascus. Both men have placed the emphasis of their campaigns on fostering democracy and fighting corruption, much like Mr. Barghouti. Neither has registered significant support in opinion polls.
According to Palestinian Arab sources, one of the reasons that none of the three candidates has received much support is intimidation by the PA. "People are afraid to be seen even reading their campaign literature," says one Palestinian Arab who asked to remain anonymous.
The message that the people have received from various leaders of the PA is that if they vote for a candidate other than Mr. Abbas they will either lose jobs they already have in the PA or will not be hired by the PA in the future. Since the PA is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza, the threat carries a great deal of weight.
Physical intimidation has also played a role in frightening Palestinian Arabs not to pay attention to candidates other than Mr. Abbas. On Wednesday, shots were fired at Salhi's offices in Ramallah as well as at the home of PA legislator and former Cabinet minister Abdel Jawad Salah, one of the most outspoken critics of PA official corruption.
The turnout in next Sunday's elections is expected to be low. As the saying on the streets of the West Bank goes, "Why bother voting, all the ballots were
already filled out in Washington."
Originally published in The New York Sun.