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Abbas Emphasizes Arafat's Objectives

In a speech launching a presidential bid, PLO chief apparently aims to appeal to hard-liners.

November 24, 2004|Ken Ellingwood and Maher Abukhater | Special to The Times

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Mahmoud Abbas, the newly named head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, promised Tuesday to pursue Yasser Arafat's goals of achieving a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and securing a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees.

Abbas, nominated by leaders of the PLO's dominant Fatah movement as its candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority, in effect launched his election campaign with a speech during a memorial ceremony for Arafat.

The remarks seemed calculated to reassure hard-line Fatah loyalists that Abbas would not give in easily to Israel on issues central to Palestinians. Abbas, a 69-year-old former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, is known as a pragmatist who opposes using violence to win statehood. His new prominence has raised hopes among Israeli and U.S. officials for a more moderate Palestinian leadership -- but fueled resistance among younger militants in the movement.

"The path that the leader Yasser Arafat has taken did not reach its destination, and we were not able to achieve all our goals," Abbas said in the brief speech, his first since Arafat died Nov. 11. "We still have a lot to do to achieve our national goals."

Abbas said Palestinian leaders "will not rest until we achieve the right of return for our people and end the tragedy of living as refugees."

Palestinians claim a right to return to lands in Israel on behalf of refugees and their descendants -- about 4 million people. The claim is a long-standing focus of Palestinian negotiators but is rejected by Israel, which worries that absorbing large numbers of returnees would jeopardize its Jewish nature.

Israel also claims sovereignty over Jerusalem and has long opposed the Palestinians' goal of making the city their capital.

There was no immediate reaction Tuesday from Israeli officials to Abbas' speech.

The Bush administration dealt a blow to Palestinian resettlement hopes this year when it said that refugees should not expect to return to homes they fled or were expelled from during the 1948 war that followed the establishment of the state of Israel.

As Fatah's nominee, Abbas instantly becomes the front-runner in the Jan. 9 election to succeed Arafat as Palestinian Authority president. His nomination, made Monday night by the party's Central Committee, goes before a broader Fatah panel this week, and approval appears likely.

But some younger members of Fatah complain that the committee, a bastion of the old guard and the movement's main decision-making body, didn't consult the broader membership before choosing a candidate.

Some Fatah activists favor Marwan Barghouti, a West Bank leader popular among Palestinians who is imprisoned in Israel. The activists are considering whether to challenge Abbas, at the risk of fracturing the party.

Barghouti, who is serving five consecutive life sentences in connection with the deaths of five people, is weighing whether to wage an independent campaign -- perhaps from behind bars, associates say. Israeli officials say they have no intention of releasing him from prison.

Abbas Zaki, a lawmaker and member of the Fatah leadership committee, defended the Abbas nomination, saying the faction was under pressure to name a candidate quickly.

He said Abbas was the best choice. "He has international ties and is a longtime companion of Yasser Arafat," Zaki said.


Times staff writer Ellingwood reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abukhater from Ramallah.

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