Three rivals hope to topple Arafat in presidential vote

Friday, September 13, 2002

JERUSALEM -- A dissident professor, a psychologist living in France and a small-town Catholic lawyer -- all political unknowns -- have shrugged aside the long-shot odds and announced plans to challenge Yasser Arafat in Palestinian elections next year.

The contenders -- political scientist Abdel Satar Qassem, psychologist Hussam Nazal and lawyer Ghassan Barham, while seeing an opening in the once monolithic hierarchy, bring little political clout to the race.

They hope, nevertheless, to capitalize on a wave of discontent about alleged corruption and the plunge in Arafat's popularity in advance of the elections which he set Wednesday for Jan. 20.

While both the United States and Israel want to see Arafat shoved aside, none of the challengers appeared likely to run on a platform that would make them attractive to the Jewish state or Washington. None of the trio of contenders proposes a more moderate Palestinian stand in stalemated negotiations.

No confidence

On Wednesday, Arafat suffered the biggest setback of his post-exile tenure. Under pressure from a rebellious parliament, the Palestinian boss set presidential and parliamentary elections for Jan. 20, moments before his 21-member Cabinet resigned to avoid a no-confidence vote.

"My chance is better than Arafat's for two reasons: corruption and the people's desire for change," said Qassem, who claims the backing of several Palestinian militant groups.

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