Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman, is seeking a halt to violent attacks by militant Palestinian factions as a first step towards restoring the long-abandoned peace process in the aftermath of Yasser Arafat's death.
But Mr Abbas's call for a "comprehensive and complete calm" in the occupied Palestinian territories came as his own claim to succeed Mr Arafat came under serious challenge by furious efforts within the PLO's dominant Fatah faction to draft the leading and popular activist Marwan Barghouti as a rival candidate.
The sudden re-emergence of Mr Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, as a potentially pivotal figure in the presidential elections planned for 9 January gained fresh momentum when at least two Fatah officials said they had been told he plans to run for the top Palestinian Authority job.
Mr Barghouti's candidacy - though so far unconfirmed - was last night being depicted by his supporters as a challenge by the young guard of Fatah activists who came of age during two Palestinian uprisings against the old guard which they said was represented by former exiles like Mr Abbas.
As expected, the PLO chairman was formally nominated as the Fatah candidate by its Revolutionary Council last night. This appeared to leave Mr Barghouti pondering whether to expose a deep split in Fatah by announcing his own independent candidacy.
Mr Abbas, the former Palestinian prime minister widely known as Abu Mazen, was said by officials to have told Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, he hoped that the Palestinian Authority would soon be able to announce "an end to all military actions, full calm, a full end to violence".
Mr Abbas deliberately avoided using the term "ceasefire", used for the pause in violent attacks by the militant factions which collapsed amid bitter recriminations between Israel and the Palestinians during Mr Abbas's three-month premiership last year.
Mr Abbas declared: "What is needed is a comprehensive and complete calm throughout the occupied territories." The PLO chairman, who has been seeking agreement with militant factions including Hamas and Islamic Jihad for such a halt to operations, said the "cooling down" should apply "in Gaza, the West Bank, everywhere".
A PLO official had earlier said that Mr Abbas had been seeking a halt to all operations against Israeli civilians, including Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza - a formula that would not apply to attacks on Israeli armed forces in the occupied territories. But in his remarks to reporters as well as to Mr Straw, Mr Abbas made no such qualification.
Nor did he declare that such a halt to violence was necessarily to be confined to the period of the forthcoming elections.
Asked yesterday what he wanted to take place a year from now, Mr Abbas said with emphasis: "Peace. We want peace. This is really our goal, our aim. We want an agreed upon peace." British officials suggested that Mr Abbas was partly referring to the need to eradicate internecine strife among Palestinians. But the terms used by Mr Abbas - coupled with the demand that such a halt to violence would need to be "reciprocated" by Israel - were acknowledged to demonstrate that his aims were much wider in scope.
Mr Abbas's programme is bound to be complicated if Mr Barghouti fulfils predictions of his intention to run. Mr Abbas has largely opposed the second and present intifada, while Mr Barghouti, though like Mr Abbas a support of the Oslo accords in the Nineties, has defended the uprising.
Meanwhile, cheered by his meeting with Mr Abbas and with Israeli ministers on Wednesday, a still upbeat Mr Straw said last night that while recognising that there had been "false dawns" before, "I will be leaving Israel and the occupied territories more optimistic than when I came."Reuse content