JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ruling coalition threatened to fall apart Wednesday, just as a charismatic radical Palestinian leader announced from an Israeli prison cell that he is running to succeed the late Yasser Arafat as president.
The rapid series of events created the possibility Palestinian voters would reject pragmatic Palestine Liberation Organization leader Mahmoud Abbas and back Marwan Barghouti, the revolutionary leader of the deadly uprising who is being held in an Israeli prison.
Meanwhile, Israelis began grappling with a political crisis of their own. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lost a key budget vote in the Knesset Wednesday night, prompting the Likud Party leader to dismiss rebellious ministers who abandoned him. The dismissals fractured Sharon’s fragile coalition and will force him to turn to longtime opponents in the Labor Party to salvage his government.
But it was Barghouti’s surprise announcement that most roiled the political waters. Barghouti is a leader of younger Palestinians who are looking to wrest control of the Fatah party from the older former exiles.
Last week, Barghouti had acceded to appeals for unity from Fatah leaders and bowed out of the race, declaring support for Abbas.
That announcement sparked a flood of letters urging Barghouti to reconsider, said his wife, Fadwa.
While jubilant young Palestinians celebrated in Ramallah, West Bank, senior Fatah leaders meeting in Gaza reacted angrily to Barghouti’s decision to buck his party and run as an independent.
Once viewed as a rising political star who favored compromise with Israel, Barghouti took on a leading role in the four-year-old uprising as head of a militant branch of Arafat’s ruling party.
Israeli soldiers seized Barghouti in 2002 and charged him with orchestrating fatal attacks on more than two-dozen Israelis during the uprising. Barghouti refused to defend himself or recognize the court’s authority to prosecute him for the crimes and used the trial to defend the uprising. He was sentenced in June to five consecutive life terms.
Barghouti’s move came hours after Hamas leaders announced the strident Islamic group would not participate in the Jan. 9, 2005, elections and urged supporters to do the same. Gaza spokesman Moshir al Masri said, however, the group was not urging all Palestinians to boycott the election.