The lame duck Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has been trundled off to Israel, but it has nothing to do with resurrecting the moribund Road Map. And, it certainly doesn’t involve paying his respects to the former elected leader of the Palestinian people, Yasir Arafat. The Bush Administration demonstrated their contempt for Arafat by sending off a rag-tag entourage of low-level emissaries to the Palestinian President’s funereal. It was a final desperate gesture intended to humiliate the Palestinian people.

Now, Powell has appeared on the scene pretending he has taken Palestinian interests to heart; its quiet a transformation, although not entirely convincing. The real motive for Powell’s trip is to assist Israel in the selection of the next Palestinian leader. It is a preemptive strike against the campaign of Marwan al Barghouti; the nightmare candidate who threatens to perpetuate Palestinian struggle against 37 years of Israeli occupation.

Powell’s rhetoric has been predictably bland; invoking the overworked bromides of “resuming negotiations” and taking advantage of this “historic opportunity”. Behind the scenes, however, the action has been fast-paced and entirely focused on one ultimate goal, making sure that al Barghouti does not appear on the presidential ticket. Both Israel and the US are completely committed to “hand-picking” the next leader of the Palestinian people and they won’t be discouraged by outpourings of popular support for the incarcerated Barghouti. Does this explain why Fatah’s revolutionary council has acted so quickly to approve PLO’s Mahmoud Abbas as the Fatah’s candidate for the January elections?

Perhaps. Abbas puts a more “moderate” face on Palestinian interests, and he is clearly the choice of the Israeli leadership. His grandfatherly appearance and outspoken opposition to violence has inspired confidence among the Sharon government. Apart from that, Sharon knows he can probably manipulate the soft-spoken Abbas and impress on him the need to police his own people while settlement continues.

Al Barghouti on the other hand, is the people’s champion; a charismatic firebrand emblematic of Palestinian dignity and resistance. His internment in an Israeli prison threatens buoy his popularity in the same way it did for Nelson Mandela or Bobby Sands. In truth, al Barghouti doesn’t need the endorsement of Fatah, his personal plight embodies the Palestinian struggle in a way that far exceeds Abbas. By any measure, he’s the hands-on favorite.

In other words, Bush and Sharon have a “big-time” problem. There’s no way that the Israeli leadership will let elections go forward if al Barghouti has any chance of winning. Like his friends in Washington, Sharon is looking for a facsimile of Ayad Allawi, a predictably venal stooge who will keep his people in line with heavy doses of violence. Abbas may not be that man, but he’s quite a bit closer than Barghouti. Barghouti’s defiance creates the worst possible scenario for Israel, a Palestinian president who refuses to collude with the occupation and their goal of expanding settlements. Washington’s efforts to subvert the electoral process are already becoming apparent. Representatives from Fatah have been dispatched to Barghouti’s prison to pressure him to withdraw from the race. Palestinian cabinet minister Qaddura Faris met with Barghouti to dissuade him from the potentially “divisive” campaign against Abbas. Al Jazeera reports, “The door before Barghouti is closed now, after the decision of the Fatah Central Committee to to nominate Abbas. If he runs as an independent candidate, Fatah will lose votes to other factions and this may also create divisions inside the movement.” (Hatim Abd al Qadir, Fatah official)

Hogwash. Washington is pulling out all the stops to torpedo Barghouti’s campaign and the corrupt Fatah leadership is helping out. Just like Allawi or Karzai they stand to benefit dramatically if their man Abbas is elected.

Al Barghouti is the clear choice of those who still support the aspirations of Palestinian statehood and a negotiated settlement. Let Bush and Sharon plot their subterfuge; Palestinians won’t elect a puppet.

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