RAMALLAH, West Bank - The off-again, on-again candidacy of Marwan Barghouti was off again last night as his campaign manager announced that the jailed Palestinian activist will withdraw from the race for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority.
The move once again clears the way for the favorite and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mahmoud Abbas, to proceed to the Jan. 9 ballot without serious competition. He has the tacit support of Israel and the United States as a credible leader able to advance the stalled peace process and end violence.
But hope that a smooth transition of power for the Palestinians after Yasser Arafat's death Nov. 11 was dealt a setback last night when Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli army post in southern Gaza, killing at least four soldiers.
The blast, claimed by Hamas and a splinter group of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Fatah Hawks, was caused by 1 1/2 tons of explosives detonated in an 800-yard tunnel secretly dug under a base that also serves as a border crossing with Egypt.
More than 10 soldiers were injured and one was reported trapped beneath the rubble last night. It was the deadliest militant attack since Arafat died, and the Israeli army was poised to re-enter Gaza last night in response, which could end a lull in fighting.
Israeli radio said two Palestinian suicide bombers may have been involved in the attack; Palestinians said a militant and civilian were killed in subsequent exchanges of fire with soldiers, which comes after increased attacks in the area over the past several days.
The renewed violence comes as the Israelis are making some conciliatory gestures leading up to Palestinian elections. That includes the release of up to 200 Palestinian prisoners, which was approved by the Israeli Cabinet yesterday.
Israeli officials said last night that the prisoner release would probably still occur but that the attack in Gaza could hurt chances to improve relations between the two sides, and they challenged the interim Palestinian leaders to put an end to militant groups.
Any prisoner release would not include Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for ordering killings during the uprising, which Israel said he helped orchestrate. Barghouti sees himself as a political prisoner.
Barghouti, in a lengthy letter read last night by his campaign manager, Ahmed Ghneim, acknowledged pressure to pull out from Fatah leaders, the United States, Israel and Arab states. He said that he entered the race only to raise awareness that elections were being held under Israeli occupation. His wife, Fadwa, was to formally have her husband's name removed from the ballot today.
In his letter, the 45-year-old leader of a young generation of Palestinians gave his support to Abbas, who represents the so-called old guard, but listed a series of challenges, many of which directly contradict Abbas' platform and could serve as contentious issues as the campaign evolves.
Barghouti urged that the armed uprising against Israel continue even during peace negotiations, said a partial agreement with Israel is not acceptable because it allows occupation to continue and said armed militants should not be arrested or have their weapons confiscated. Abbas is trying to forge a cease-fire and has called for an end to all attacks.
Barghouti announced Nov. 26 that he would not try to succeed Arafat, ending weeks of speculation, and in return was promised that Fatah would have elections and open its ranks to younger members of the movement.
He threw the political world here into turmoil when he changed his mind Dec. 1 and became a formal candidate in the last hours of registration. He drew sharp criticism from senior Fatah leaders who worried that he could win over Abbas, split party unity and ruin any chance at furthering peace initiatives with Israel and the United States.
Barghouti changed his mind again last night. In his letter, he said the world must know that the Palestinians are trying to reform their own government and fight the Israelis - all while under occupation - and that his brief candidacy helped remind Palestinian leaders and the world of their plight.
"My candidacy was not a challenge to anybody," he said in the letter. "Unfortunately, several people misinterpreted my message. God forgive you, my Arab brothers, who were not patient before giving their opinions."
The director of Barghouti's campaign office, Saad Nimr, said his client underestimated the anger his candidacy would cause, especially among leaders of his Fatah party.
"He wants to make the point that he never intended to be president," Nimr said in an interview last night. "His intention was to call attention to occupation and prisoners in the international community, and say that Palestinians under occupation cannot have a free election and a legitimate leader in the president's chair."
Some polls had Abbas and Barghouti neck and neck, while others had Abbas in clear command. The Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found that 27 percent of those polled supported Abbas, 20 percent backed Barghouti and 26 percent said nobody was fit to lead after Arafat. The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 40 percent supported Abbas and 22 percent backed Barghouti.
Hisham Ahmed, the head of the political science department at Birzeit University in Ramallah who taught Barghouti in 1998, said the reasons given for his former student's withdrawal appear disingenuous.
"Maybe he meant what he said, but maybe it's a way out," Ahmed said. "Perhaps there was a lot of pressure being brought upon him, and he figures that this is the way out of an internal crisis while saving face."
Ahmed said he thought Barghouti's candidacy was a mistake. "It would have been wiser for him to stay out of this whole process," he said, adding, however, that his departure deprives Palestinian voters of a real choice. There are eight candidates in the election, but all but Abbas are considered long shots.
"There is only one main candidate left," Ahmed said.