Senior Palestinian figures in the main political group, Fatah, closed ranks on Thursday against the on-again off-again presidential candidacy of the popular Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail.
The old guard was joined by some prominent younger Fatah militants of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who once saw Barghouti, 45, as their leader, but now criticize him for putting himself above Palestinian unity.
His decision on Wednesday to revive a candidacy he had forsworn threatens to split Fatah, which unanimously nominated Mahmoud Abbas, 69, for the Palestinian Authority presidency. Abbas has already succeeded Yasser Arafat as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The criticism was joined by senior Israeli officials and by the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.
The furor was indicative of the concern in the Palestinian and Arab establishment that a Barghouti victory would dash new optimism about progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abbas is a relative moderate who has consistently and publicly opposed violence as counterproductive to the Palestinian goal of a viable, independent state. Barghouti, like his mentor Arafat, supports violence as a tactic.
As such, Barghouti is popular with young militants who have grown up under Israeli occupation and who want a stronger voice in Palestinian decision-making. They feel that they have lost their father and main supporter in Arafat, who died Nov. 11, and that Abbas is betraying the Arafat legacy.
Palestinian opinion is hard to gauge, because so many people say they are undecided rather than state their preferences. But the current Palestinian and Israeli leaders clearly fear that Abbas, a dry man in a suit who has little experience as a politician, might well lose to Barghouti, or lose badly enough in the field of 10 candidates that the election would undermine his authority rather than enhance it.
In fact, Barghouti has many Israeli friends and also favors a peace settlement on terms not very different from Abbas. But the election of a Palestinian president who has blessed attacks against Israeli civilians, and has been convicted for ordering them, would make it almost impossible for the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to negotiate.
Senior Palestinians said there would be new efforts to persuade Barghouti to withdraw his candidacy. Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, said, "He might later on decide to withdraw in favor of the Fatah candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, to whom he has already pledged his support and total cooperation."
Hatem Abdel Kader, a Palestinian legislator who is close to Barghouti, said, "We will do all we can in coming days to convince Marwan to remove his candidacy to avoid a split in Fatah."