Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader campaigning to succeed Yasser Arafat in elections next month, said on Tuesday that the 4-year-old armed uprising against Israel was a mistake and must end.
His strong statement, which could cost him some electoral support, sent a challenge to militants who have been waging war with suicide attacks and ambushes and set the stage for a resumption of peace efforts if he wins.
In an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat published on Tuesday, Abbas said Palestinians should continue resisting Israeli occupation, but only through nonviolent means.
"The uprising is a legitimate right of the people to express their rejection of the occupation by popular and social means," Abbas said. "Using the weapons was harmful and has got to stop."
Clarifying his comments during a news conference in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Abbas said armed attacks could damage peace moves.
"We, at this stage, are against the militarization of the intifada because we want to negotiate. And because we want to negotiate, the atmosphere should be calm in preparation for political action," he said. "That's why we have frankly called for ... an end to the militarization of the intifada."
While Arafat was still alive, Abbas mainly saved his criticism of the armed uprising for private conversations. When he publicly expressed his belief during the launch of the US-backed "road map" peace plan last year, he drew sharp condemnation.
But uprising leader Marwan Barghouti's withdrawal from the Jan. 9 elections to replace Arafat has left Abbas the clear front-runner, giving him more leeway to take risks and alienate some potential voters in exchange for laying the groundwork for rapid post-election peace moves.
And many Palestinians -- while supporting militant attacks that have killed more than 1,000 Israelis, many of them civilians -- have tired of a conflict that has crushed their economy and killed more than 3,000 of their people.
Abbas, a pragmatist who has the quiet support of Israel and the international community, has been working to persuade militant groups to halt attacks.
Israel has said violence must end before peace talks can resume and has held out the prospect of coordinating its planned withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements with the new Palestinian leadership if it quells violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with Arafat, accusing him of fomenting violence.
Israel also said that if the Palestinians reorganize their tangled and competing security services, it would be willing to give them control over large areas of Gaza and parts of the West Bank even before the pullout next year.
But Abbas told Asharq al-Awsat that Palestinian security is badly disorganized.
"Frankly, the Palestinian [security] apparatus needs discipline. There is security chaos, that's why were demanding and are seeking to unify the security apparatus," Abbas said.
Abbas also said he was in talks with the militant Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to bring them into the PLO, an umbrella group for Palestinian parties.
Abbas' efforts to broker a cease-fire suffered a setback on Sunday when militants killed five soldiers in a blast on the Gaza-Egypt border.
Militants have also fired rockets and mortar barrages at settlements in Gaza in the last week.