Israel to aid Palestinian elections

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 23-Nov-04 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was greeted Monday by Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, before talks in Jericho.

JERUSALEM Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday that he had won a commitment from Israel to let Palestinians living in Jerusalem participate in elections next January and to ease conditions in the West Bank and Gaza so that Palestinians can more easily vote there.

In what is most likely to be his final foray to the Middle East before leaving office, Powell also conferred with Palestinian leaders, praising them for their efforts to reform their government, work with the Israelis to plan for the elections and begin a process to draw militant groups into electoral politics and away from violence.

"I'm pleased with the level of coordination and cooperation that exists between the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority to make sure that those elections can be held," Powell said outside an election district office in Jericho, where he heard a progress report on Palestinian efforts to get 1.7 million voters to the polls.

Later, he said that this cooperation, building on Israeli-Palestinian coordination for the funeral of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, "is perhaps indicative of what can be achieved in the months ahead" as elections occur and Israel goes through with its planned withdrawal of settlers and armed forces from Gaza next year.

Neither Powell nor Israeli leaders provided details on what steps Israel might take.

But Israeli and American officials said that they would include lifting checkpoints and roadblocks so that Palestinians could vote and candidates could campaign, and setting up voting procedures in Jerusalem, which Israel regards as part of its sovereign territory.

Taken together, Powell's visit to Jerusalem and Jericho, and the comments of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, offered the most dramatic indication of hope in nearly a year and a half that there was some prospect for improvement in the violent Palestinian-Israeli impasse.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Israel said that the death of Arafat "represents an opportunity for real and positive change" and that "all sides must take this opportunity."

Referring to the Palestinian elections, he said that "Israel will do everything in its power to ensure their smooth running."

In Jericho after meeting with Powell, Palestinian leaders were also hopeful but cautious.

"We got promises, no more," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, adding that Powell "was positive in his responses to our demands and promised to support us and help us in achieving what we asked for."

The last time there was any kind of optimism of this sort was in mid 2003, after the Iraq war, when President George W. Bush held meetings with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Arab leaders and Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian prime minister .

The goal was to get Abbas to wrest control of Palestinian security forces from Arafat and rein in Palestinians who were attacking on Israelis. A few months later, Abbas resigned, saying that he had not received Arafat's backing or any help from Israel in lifting its siege in the West Bank, freeing prisoners or curbing settlements.

Some Bush administration officials now say that an opportunity was missed by a White House too preoccupied with Iraq and too concerned about pressing Israel to get itself involved in the messy business of coaxing both sides to cooperate.

One senior official from that period, John Wolf, who served as the envoy to enact reciprocal steps by both sides, said recently that the administration failed to demand publicly that Israel and the Palestinians live up to their commitments as laid out in the plan known as the "road map" to establish a Palestinian state.

On Monday, however, Powell was not particularly specific in his demands for either side, and administration officials accompanying him said there was no time to go into details.

On the sensitive matter of Jerusalem, which Israel has declared cannot be given over even in part to a new Palestinian state, Powell was blunt, declaring that he expected the setting up of "modalities" for Palestinians to vote.

Arafat successor proposed

The dominant Palestinian political faction Fatah on Monday named Mahmoud Abbas as its candidate to succeed Yasser Arafat in a presidential election scheduled for Jan. 9, Reuters reported from the West bank town of Ramallah.

A Fatah Central Committee member, Intisar al-Wazir, said the nomination was subject to approval by the Fatah Revolutionary Council on Thursday, a certainty given the central committee's unanimous vote for Abbas, who took over the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization when Arafat died on Nov. 11.

Abbas, a moderate and the former Palestinian prime minister, is favored by Israel and the United States for his calls to end a Palestinian armed uprising that erupted in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in September 2000.

Although he does not enjoy a strong power base among Palestinians, Abbas is considered the front-runner to succeed Arafat.