RAMALLAH, West Bank – Cloaking himself in Yasser Arafat's (search) legacy, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) opened his campaign for president Saturday with a pledge to fulfill Palestinian dreams of statehood.
Abbas, the front-runner in the Jan. 9 election, called on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank (search), Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. He said he favors a negotiated settlement and reiterated his backing for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
"Israel must pull out of all Palestinian lands occupied in 1967. We must end the occupation," Abbas told hundreds of supporters. "We cannot compromise on Jerusalem."
Israel and the Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their capital.
"We are choosing the path of peace and negotiation," Abbas added. "If there is no peace here, there will be no peace in the Middle East or the rest of the world."
The Palestinian goals in the peace process that Abbas laid out mirrored those sought by Arafat — and most Palestinians. Abbas — who is the candidate of Arafat's ruling Fatah movement and who faces six opponents in the presidential vote — has repeatedly made clear he intends to present himself as the late Palestinian leader's heir, despite their often rocky relationship.
Since Arafat's death Nov. 11, Abbas has sought to harness Arafat's popularity. Abbas' rally began with a moment of silence for Arafat and he sprinkled his speech with references to the late leader.
Abbas also appeared alongside Arafat in campaign posters and advertisements that ran prominently in Palestinian newspapers Saturday. "On your path, we will achieve the Palestinian dream," the ads say.
In his speech, Abbas reiterated promises to hold parliamentary elections in the first half of 2005, shortly after the January presidential race.
The militant group Hamas welcomed Abbas' call for elections, but urged him to follow through on the promise.
"So far no date has been set for this election," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "We hope the Palestinian Authority will fulfill its promises regarding the political partnership."
Popular at the local level, Hamas made a strong showing in municipal elections this week and could do well in the legislative vote. Hamas is boycotting the presidential vote.
Palestinian officials said final results from the municipal elections would be delayed until Sunday because candidates in two communities had requested a review. According to incomplete preliminary results from the 26 communities that voted, Fatah won at least 14 races and Hamas won nine.
Abbas said peace with Israel was conditional on the release of all Palestinian prisoners, especially jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti, a rival in Fatah, dropped his plans to run for president under intense pressure from party members.
Abbas told Fatah supporters he was determined to provide security to his people, and continue the struggle against Israel's partially completed West Bank barrier.
The barrier, which dips into the West Bank in some areas, has divided Palestinian towns and separated farmers from their land and children from their schools. The 425-mile barrier is about one-third complete.
Abbas also pledged to resolve the problem of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Himself a refugee from what is now the northern Israeli city of Safed, Abbas called the refugee issue "very important and very dangerous."
The refugees fled or were forced to flee their homes when Israel was established in 1948 and want to return. Israel rejects any large-scale return, saying it would destroy the country's Jewish character.
Palestinian newspapers were full of campaign advertisements Saturday. Human-rights worker Mustafa Barghouti, running a distant second to Abbas in opinion polls, appeared on the front page of the al-Ayyam daily and had billboard ads throughout the West Bank.
"Put the cause in safe hands," the candidate says in one ad, Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque pictured in the background.
With the powerful Fatah party behind him, Abbas is expected to coast to victory. Israel and the United States also quietly back the moderate pragmatist.
Also Saturday, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian militant after a lengthy standoff. The militant was identified as Thaer Abu Kanel, a deputy of Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a violent group linked to Fatah.