Abbas Invokes Arafat

Mahmoud Abbas kicked off his campaign to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian president on Saturday, pledging to uphold the late Palestinian leader's legacy and deliver on his promise of Palestinian statehood.

Abbas, the interim Palestinian leader and front-runner in the Jan. 9 elections, plastered pictures of Arafat on his campaign posters and peppered his campaign announcement with references to him, hoping that their decades-long relationship -- rocky though it was -- will propel him to overwhelming victory.

Speaking to a hall filled with hundreds of supporters, Abbas called on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem -- which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War -- said he favored a negotiated peace settlement and promised to respect the rights of Palestinian refugees.

"We are choosing the path of peace and negotiation," said Abbas. "If there is no peace here, there will be no peace in the Middle East or the rest of the world."

Abbas, the candidate of the ruling Fatah movement, made it clear he intends to paint himself as the heir to Arafat, who has become a symbol of Palestinian aspirations since his death Nov. 11.

Abbas appears alongside Arafat in campaign posters and advertisements that ran in Palestinian newspapers Saturday. "Comrades in revolution," read one poster of the two men.

Before Arafat's death, the two men had a deeply contentious relationship. Abbas resigned his post as Palestinian prime minister in September 2003, four months after he took office, because of conflicts with Arafat. The two men did not speak for more than a year until Arafat fell ill.

Regardless, more than a dozen speakers -- religious leaders and representatives of student groups, refugees and people injured during the four years of fighting with Israel -- introduced Abbas, nearly all of them invoking Arafat's legacy and praising Abbas' commitment to follow in his path.

"Out of respect for Arafat, we are with Abu Mazen," Taissir Tamimi, a top Islamic cleric, said. Abbas is widely known as Abu Mazen.

In his speech, Abbas called for a moment of silence for Arafat, said no one could fill the hole he left and pledged fealty to the late leader.

"Whatever you said on various occasions, whatever you talked about in different meetings ... is your will, and it is our duty to carry it out as long as we live," he said, symbolically addressing Arafat.

Israel and the United States shunned Arafat, accusing him of promoting terror attacks. But they have quietly supported Abbas, whom they see as a pragmatist.

In his speech Saturday, Abbas called for an end to the occupation and reiterated his previous promise to hold Palestinian parliamentary elections early next year.

He appealed for Israel to release all Palestinian prisoners, especially jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti, a Fatah rival of Abbas', pulled out of the race under intense party pressure.

Abbas also pledged to resolve the problem of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees -- who left their homes during fighting when Israel was established in 1948 -- and their descendants. Abbas, himself a refugee from what is today the northern Israeli city of Safed, called the issue "very important and very dangerous."

The problem of refugees and the status of east Jerusalem have been two of the thorniest issues in peace negotiations. Israel has annexed east Jerusalem and says it will retain the area in any peace deal, and it has rejected any large-scale return of refugees, saying it would destroy the country's Jewish character.

Abbas also said he was determined to fight against Israel's separation barrier, which dips into the West Bank in areas, and said Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year must be part of a larger pullout plan.

The militant group Hamas welcomed Abbas' speech, including his call for legislative elections, but urged him to follow through.

"What is important for us is the implementation and the translation of these promises from words to deeds," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Hamas, which has grown in popularity during the violence, made a surprisingly strong showing in municipal elections Thursday, and could do well in the legislative vote. The group is boycotting the presidential election.

Palestinian officials said final municipal election results would be delayed a day until Sunday because candidates in two communities wanted a review. Incomplete results from the 26 communities that voted gave Fatah at least 14 races and Hamas nine.

Saturday marked the first day of the election campaign for the seven candidates and billboards and newspaper ads began appearing throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

Human-rights worker Mustafa Barghouti, who is running a distant second to Abbas in opinion polls, kicked off his campaign with his own effort to harness Arafat's popularity, laying a wreath at the late leader's tomb.

"Put the cause in safe hands," Barghouti says in one ad, a picture of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque in the background.

With the powerful Fatah party machinery behind him, Abbas is expected to coast to victory.

In new fighting Saturday, Israeli troops killed Thaer Abu Kamel, a militant leader from Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which is linked to Fatah, when they demolished the West Bank home he was hiding in, Palestinian and Israeli officials said.