Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

At Yasser Arafat Anniversary, Palestinians Lament Loss of Former Leader and Unity

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

At Yasser Arafat Anniversary, Palestinians Lament Loss of Former Leader and Unity

Article excerpt

Five years after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Palestinians are searching for direction in the midst of what may be the most difficult political era since Mr. Arafat oversaw the Palestinian Authority's inception 15 years ago.

In Ramallah on Wednesday thousands of Palestinians gathered to mark the five-year anniversary of Arafat's death and to express support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who announced last week that he will not seek to hold office again in next year's elections.

But Palestinians within the Fatah movement led by Mr. Abbas are still trying to convince him otherwise, as are others across the region. In the past two days he has received calls from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, urging him to stay on, officials in Abbas' office said.

Abbas insists publicly that the matter is not up for debate and some of his aides suggest that he might even resign before the next elections, which are scheduled for Jan. 24. But many Palestinians doubt he will stick to that date, and some say that the threat to exit the stage is largely a tactical move.

"I think that despite what he says, he will run for the presidency," says Nabil Kukali, a political scientist and pollster in Beit Sahur, near Bethlehem in the West Bank.

"What Abbas is doing is sending out a message to the Israelis, the Americans, and the Europeans: 'I'm not a president for life,' " Dr. Kukali says. "The alternative is a leadership which represents a more radical side of Palestinian politics. Abbas has a very clear agenda for peace and it has a shelf life, and unfortunately the Israelis don't understand that."

Kukali, the director of the Palestinian center for Public Opinion, found in a poll released last week that 82 percent of Palestinians say they miss Arafat and the perception of unity he symbolized.

"Palestinians really miss Arafat, because when he was in charge at least we had one Palestinian people," Kukali says. …

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