EL-BIREH, West Bank - The front-runner in next month's election to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, launched his campaign yesterday, appealing to voters who worry that he might surrender core tenets of their long fight for statehood.
The silver-haired, pragmatic 69-year-old reassured a hall filled with 800 supporters in a municipal building here, paying homage to Yasser Arafat and using language to please militant ears, while not repudiating previous moderate statements. He shared a dais with teenagers wounded in the conflict, former prisoners of Israel and relatives of dead gunmen.
They took turns giving Abbas their support in what was the candidate's attempt to reach out to people who have felt slighted by him in the past, to shore up an image hurt by the tacit support he enjoys from the United States and Israel and by his urgings for an end to the armed conflict.
There are six candidates in addition to Abbas; one is under house arrest in the United States, accused of supporting terrorist groups.
Yesterday was the first day of official campaigning, opening a two-week process leading up to the vote, scheduled for Jan. 9, to replace Arafat, who died last month.
'Hopes and the pains'
"The people at this table represent the hopes and the pains of the Palestinian people," Abbas said, after the group raised their joined hands in a show of solidarity.
Addressing some of the concerns emanating from the street while embracing Arafat's legacy, he added, "We need only to be faithful to our people."
Abbas avoided any mention of his previous calls for gunmen to surrender their arms, nor did he repeat his unpopular assertions that militarizing the uprising was a "historic mistake."
He pushed for national unity and the rule of law but appeared to rule out a police crackdown on militant groups.
"We will not raise weapons in the faces of our brothers," he said to cheers from teenagers in the audience, who represent a young generation of Fatah political party leaders who feel left out by the entrenched old guard, epitomized by Abbas.
The only other relatively well-known candidate, Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor from Ramallah, began his campaign in a more traditional style, by visiting several Palestinian cities on an opening-day tour to get close to the people.
Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, is uncomfortable giving public speeches, and he spent the past several weeks traveling and meeting Arab leaders.
Last week, Abbas met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and on Friday he attended midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - carefully choreographed events in which he is clearly at ease.
Yesterday's campaign event was designed to quell concerns resonating from a speech Abbas made last year at a peace summit in Jordan in which he renounced violence and did not mention the plight of thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Abbas sat between the Muslim cleric who had pronounced Arafat dead in Paris and an Armenian priest.
Next to them sat Israel's longest-held Palestinian prisoner, released when Abbas was prime minister, along with the son of a man killed by Israel and a teenager wounded in the conflict.
Also on the stage was Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, who bowed out of the race this month under pressure from Fatah, whose leaders were worried that his popularity would split the dominant party and endanger Abbas' candidacy.
Abbas made sure not to leave out any part of his constituency, especially those still involved in a conflict he wishes to end.
The song that preceded his remarks opens with the line: "We are not terrorists, Muslims and Christians; we are struggling for freedom; we are an Arab nation; we are struggling to liberate Palestine; they hit us with missiles; we hit them with stones."
He appealed to the young, often disillusioned Palestinians, saying, "We know the suffering of our youth."
He promised never to give up on Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine and never to surrender the rights of refugees to return to their former homes in Israel.
"We are choosing a path of peace and negotiations," Abbas said. "If there is no peace here, there will be no peace in the Middle East and in the rest of the world. We know that the others do not want us to be in peace, so they choose to kill and demolish us. But we will stay."
Homage to Arafat
Abbas sprinkled his lengthy address with references to Arafat, giving him credit as "the one who exploded our revolution." He referred to Arafat's final speech to legislators, in which he urged internal reform to end corruption and made a stark admission that he and others made mistakes in their quest for an independent state.
Abbas referred to that speech as Arafat's will, and promised, "We will do it" - using Arafat's address as a bridge to a new era, away from the rule of one man and toward the rule of democratic institutions.
The large crowd only occasionally reacted with enthusiastic applause.
Often, it was the small groups of young activists whose loud shouts provided the only lively spark in what was, for Abbas, a typically dry speech.
At one point, they chanted, using Arafat's nom de guerre, "Abu Amr, he is resting and we will continue our struggle. Abu Mazen, we will follow you to liberation."
Akiam Mazaham, a 22-year-old biology student at Birzeit University, was one of Abbas' liveliest supporters.
Putting down his flag and removing his scarf adorned with the Palestinian colors, he said he is convinced that Abbas will not sell out Arafat's legacy.
But he acknowledged that cheering a man clad in a gray suit and tie is a bit harder than rooting for the more animated Arafat, the embodiment of their movement.
"Abu Mazen is a man of institutions, and that can help us build a state," Mazaham said. The student smiled when asked about Abbas' subdued speaking style, saying diplomatically, "He acts more than talks."
A campaign aide, Mohammed Ishtyeh, told reporters that Abbas planned a vigorous schedule.
"Wherever he can go, he will go," Ishtyeh said. "We want him to react to the people, and we want the people to react to him, even though we know what the end result will be.
"We want to keep up the momentum of the democratic process."