RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - Facing elections for the first time in 15 years, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is battling a growing rift within his powerful Fatah party that poses a new threat to his dominance over Palestinian politics.
A breakaway bid by one of Abbas's party allies has intensified speculation he might cancel a presidential vote planned for July, fearing a potential challenge by Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian leader jailed by Israel.
Abbas's office denies he has plans to delay or scrub the presidential vote.
Barghouti, now 61, was a driving force in Palestinians' 2000-2005 uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. He was sentenced by an Israeli court in 2004 to life imprisonment after being convicted over multiple lethal attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants. Barghouti has always denied the charges.
Abbas, 85, has ruled the Palestinian Authority (PA) in self-rule areas of the West Bank by decree for over a decade. In January, he announced presidential and legislative ballots - a move largely seen as a response to domestic and Western criticism of his presidency's democratic legitimacy.
Adding to that criticism is Nasser al-Qudwa, a longtime member of Fatah's top Central Committee who last week announced he was forming a new list that would run separately from Fatah in the legislative election, in May.
"[Palestinians] are fed up with the current situation ... internal behavior or misbehavior, things like the absence of the rule of the law, the absence of equality, the absence of fairness," Qudwa, a nephew of late Fatah founder and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, told Reuters.
It is rare for leaders on the 19-member Central Committee members to publicly break with Abbas.
Qudwa, 67, said he hoped his list would be led by Barghouti, a Fatah leader long floated as a potential Abbas successor.
Barghouti has not said if he will join the list or run in the presidential ballot. He and his lawyer declined a request to interview him. But opinion polls suggest he would win comfortably against Abbas and leaders from Hamas, the Islamist movement that seized control of Gaza from Fatah in 2007.
Aides to Abbas point to the split with Hamas as having contributed to the long delay in holding new elections.
Abbas has tried to resolve the discord by dispatching a loyalist to visit Barghouti in prison and, through emissaries, preaching party unity after Qudwa announced his new list.
"Fatah, with strength and power, will run united in the upcoming democratic elections to strengthen democracy, maintain the national liberation project and protect Palestinian national unity," Hussein al-Sheikh, Abbas' civil affairs minister, wrote on Facebook.
Palestinian officials have privately questioned how Barghouti would contest the elections from prison and what would happen if he won. Any move to free him would likely ignite a political firestorm in Israel.
Two Western diplomats told Reuters that European countries were urging Abbas not to backtrack on his election pledge.
"There's concern he (Abbas) might see a middle ground in allowing the legislative elections to go ahead, but postponing or cancelling the presidential election," one of them said.
Abbas is due on Monday to convene a meeting of Fatah's Central Committee, where he is expected to formally sanction Qudwa.
Qudwa told Reuters he does not plan to attend committee meetings.
It was not immediately clear how much support Qudwa's list would garner. About 250 Palestinians joined a Zoom conference call he held last week to announce the move.
The Palestinians' last parliamentary ballot, in 2006, resulted in a surprise victory by Fatah's main rival Hamas. That created a rift that deepened when the Islamist group wrested military control of Gaza from the Fatah-led PA two years after Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from the territory.
The elections are part of a broader push for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, seen as vital to building broad popular support for any future statehood talks with Israel, frozen since 2014.
Party lists for the legislative ballot are due by March 20.