The Israeli and Palestinian leaderships were in upheaval Wednesday night as Ariel Sharon's government faced collapse after the prime minister broke with his main coalition partner, and a popular Palestinian military commander launched a strong challenge from his jail cell to succeed Yasser Arafat in next month's election.
The unexpected decision by Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison, to break with the dominant Fatah movement and register as a presidential candidate in the Palestinian election appeared to complicate Sharon's coalition problems. The Israeli prime minister's administration is facing collapse after his main coalition partner, the Shinui Party, caused the defeat of the annual budget in Parliament, threatening Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Sharon promptly sacked Shinui ministers from his Cabinet, leaving the administration with just 40 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. The secular Shinui had objected to Sharon's "bribing" religious parties with tens of millions of pounds in budget allocations to win their support.
The prime minister appeared to have engineered the confrontation to force a remaking of his minority administration by bringing the opposition Labor Party into the government to keep alive his plan to pull Jewish settlers out of Gaza. However, there is strong opposition within Sharon's Likud Party to a coalition with Labor, particularly from an influential group opposed to withdrawal from Gaza. It fears that if Labor joins the administration it will push for the closure of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Sharon is counting on members of Likud's central committee preferring a deal with Labor to calling elections. But opposition within Likud to the Gaza withdrawal is likely to stiffen following Barghouti's decision to run for president of the Palestinian Authority. Barghouti has thrown open the ballot by registering as an independent candidate against his own Fatah movement just hours before the deadline.
An Israeli court found him guilty of complicity in five murders this year, although he insisted he was a political, not military, leader.
His decision lays down a strong challenge to the official Fatah candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, who had been seen as Arafat's heir presumptive after taking over the reins of the Palestine Liberation Organization. "I am running in this democratic battle ... to achieve peace on the basis of justice, freedom, the return of Palestinian refugees and freedom for our prisoners," Barghouti said in a statement read by his wife, Fadwa Barghouti. He called for a fair election campaign.
Barghouti has widespread support as one of a younger generation of leaders committed to political reform and because he has been at the forefront of the Palestinian uprising, the intifada. He has denounced efforts by Abbas and others to bring an end to the intifada, saying the armed struggle is a legitimate means of resisting and pressuring Israel. But Barghouti had to break with Fatah to launch his presidential bid, drawing stiff criticism from allies and other reformers who say that splitting the movement plays into Israel's hands. Recent opinion polls show no clear favorite in a contest with Abbas and Barghouti as the principal contenders out of about 10 candidates.
Israel has said it will not release Barghouti even if he is elected as president because he is a "terrorist." But his candidacy is only likely to harden resistance among opponents of Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan, who argue that pulling out of the territory will encourage more violence by rewarding terrorism.
Last week, Barghouti, under pressure from Fatah leaders, said he would not run in the Jan. 9 election and endorsed Abbas. But Wednesday Mrs. Barghouti visited him in prison and then went to submit his application to the Palestinian electoral commission. She has had several run-ins with Fatah leaders, whom she accuses of wanting to keep her husband in jail because of the political challenge he poses. Palestinian sources said that on Tuesday she confronted Abbas and demanded that he make her husband's release a precondition of negotiations with Israel. The sources said that Abbas refused and Barghouti decided to register as a candidate after all.
Barghouti's challenge could provide an incentive for Israel to ease the grip of occupation and shore up support for Abbas by being seen to reward his recent efforts to curb violence. But Sharon now has his own political crisis to confront as he tries to put together a new coalition. Senior Labor and Likud officials discussed forming a national unity government earlier this week and are expected to meet again Thursday. Sharon has until Monday, when he faces a no-confidence vote, to strike a deal and form a new government. If he cannot form a government, he would be obliged to call elections.