RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, told parliament yesterday that he’ll follow in Yasser Arafat’s footsteps and demand that Israel recognize the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, a hard-line position that has contributed to failed peace efforts in the past.
Abbas’s remarks were seen as the start of his six-week presidential campaign, signaling to young, militant activists that he would not compromise on long-held Palestinian policies, though Israel considers them deal-breakers.
The traditional leadership of Fatah — dominated by contemporaries of the 69-year-old Abbas and Arafat, who died Nov. 11 at 75 — picked Abbas as the party candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority.
Rebellious young Fatah members are demanding a primary election, backing Marwan Barghouti, 45, who is serving a lengthy prison term in Israel.
Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, said her husband would decide early next week whether to run as an independent in the election, set for Jan. 9.
Abbas’s speech sent another signal that although he is seen as a pragmatist and moderate opposed to violence, there is no guarantee that he could forge a peace deal with Israel.
During a one-day visit on Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell hoped that successful Palestinian elections could result in renewed talks on the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which leads through stages to a Palestinian state.
The plan has foundered because neither side carried out the initial obligations. That aside, the last phase of “road map” negotiations would tackle the same issues that have scuttled earlier peace efforts — refugees, borders, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem.
Abbas gave no hint of flexibility yesterday.
At a memorial ceremony for Arafat at the Palestinian parliament, Abbas said he would walk in the footsteps of the late Palestinian leader. “We promise (Arafat) that our heart will not rest until we achieve the right of return for our people and end the tragic refugee issue,” he said.
The “right of return” is a demand that all the refugees from the war that followed Israel’s creation in 1948 should be allowed to return to their original homes, along with their descendants. That refers to a total of about 4 million people.
Israel has always rejected the concept, offering compensation to refugees and saying they should find permanent homes in Arab countries or a Palestinian state. Four million Arabs would overwhelm the Jewish state, where about 6 million Jews live.
Israel has consistently turned down Palestinian demands on the other main issues, as well.
Arafat held three top jobs — PLO chief, leader of Fatah and president of the Palestinian Authority. Immediately after Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, Abbas was chosen as PLO chief. If he is also elected as Palestinian Authority president, he would be transformed from interim leader to Arafat’s successor.
Abbas served as Arafat’s first prime minister in 2003. However, he resigned after just four months in power, frustrated with Israeli policy and Arafat’s refusal to grant him real power.
Thirteen members of the old-guard Fatah Central Committee picked Abbas as the party candidate Monday.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Qadoura Fares, a Barghouti loyalist, said the Fatah candidate should be chosen in a much larger forum.