Abbas, Qureia Visit Egypt for Talks on Elections

PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and interim Palestinian Authority Chairman Rouhi Fattouh are scheduled to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Sunday for talks on the January 9 elections for PA chairman.

The discussions with Egyptian officials are also expected to focus on the new power-sharing formula in the Palestinian territories. This is the three Palestinian leaders' first official visit out of the territories since the death of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Fatah is showing almost unnatural cohesion ahead of the elections. Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti will not be among those running for chairman against Fatah candidate Abbas and has urged the Palestinians to support Abbas. And Zacharia Zubeidi, a leading member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the West Bank and a local leader in Jenin, has declared his support for the Abbas candidacy.

A number of other leading Palestinian gunmen, who in effect assert control over the Palestinian street, have also expressed their public support for Abbas (Abu Mazen), reflecting an appreciation that infighting over the void left after Arafat's death will be to the collective detriment.

Al-Aqsa Brigades gunmen carried pictures of Abbas during a rally Saturday in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Egypt, meanwhile, is working to unify the different Palestinian factions, particularly ahead of the elections, said Egypt's former ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Bassiouni.

"The president will focus [in the meeting] on taking all the measures needed to strengthen the Palestinian Authority," he said. "Abu Mazen is facing a lot of challenges."

Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abbas, Qureia and Fattouh were going to meet with Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as well as with Mubarak.

Egypt is also trying to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and assist preparations for Israel's planned withdrawal of the Gaza strip.

Suleiman and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit will visit Israel on Wednesday to discuss the disengagement plan, Gheit said Saturday. They were originally scheduled to come last week, but delayed the trip after an Israeli tank crew mistakenly killed three Egyptians near the Gaza border.

Barghouti: Support Abbas for PA chairmanIn announcing Friday that Barghouti would not run for PA chairman, his aide Kadoura Fares also said the jailed Fatah leader called on Palestinians to support Abbas for chairman.

Fares, speaking at a press conference he called in Ramallah after meeting with Barghouti in his prison cell, said Barghouti also urged Palestinians to keep up the intifada and fight for liberty.

Fatah decided Friday that elections for its institutions would be held August 4.

Barghouti was under pressure both to run for PA chairman and to decline the candidacy, said Arab Knesset member Jamal Zahalka (Balad), who participated in the meeting with Fares, one of Barghouti's closest associates.

Fares was trying to convince Barghouti not to run for chairman, Israel Radio reported.

Zahalka was trying to find out whether Barghouti intended to run for chairman as an independent candidate or to support Abbas. The two also discussed the political situation in the PA.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had granted Arab MKs permission to visit Barghouti, despite some officials' reluctance to let Israel appear to intervene in Palestinian elections, Israel Radio reported.

"The Palestinian leadership needs Marwan Barghouti as a key figure who could stabilize the situation after Arafat in any serious negotiations with Israel," Zahalka said before meeting with Barghouti.

He said Barghouti "has to be immediately released." But senior Israeli officials said Barghouti would not be released because he has "blood on his hands," according to the radio.

Barghouti, considered the leader of Fatah's "young guard," is serving five life terms for the murder of five Israelis during the current intifada.

MK Ahmed Tibi (Hadash) was also slated to meet Barghouti on Friday but decided at the last minute to cancel, saying that he didn't believe meeting Barghouti days after Fatah named a different candidate was a wise step.

Tibi said he wished to take part in the campaign for Barghouti's release from prison "away from the eyes of the media."

Barghouti's associates said he was furious over the fact that Abbas was chosen as the party's nominee by the tiny central committee, which includes no members of the younger generation, rather than by a broader party forum - and moreover, at a meeting that Abbas himself chaired.

Nevertheless, they said, Barghouti sees Fatah as his home and has no intention of leaving the party.