Mon, Dec 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Israel takes hand in Palestinian poll

POWERPLAY As potential successors vie to replace the late Yasser Arafat, the Israeli government's coming up with ways to regulate the upcoming presidential race

AP , JERUSALEM

Palestinians hang a giant poster of late leader Yasser Arafat and Mahmud Abbas, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman and Fatah candidate in January's Palestinian presidential election, with writing reading `in the footsteps of the dream' in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Christmas day.

PHOTO: AFP

The Israeli government was to approve Sunday a range of measures meant to ensure a smooth Palestinian presidential election, including granting Palestinians freedom of movement and allowing candidates to campaign in predominantly Arab east Jerusalem, officials said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will ask his Cabinet to ease military restrictions in and around West Bank and Gaza towns several days ahead of the Jan. 9 vote, a senior Israeli government official said on condition of anonymity.

The Cabinet will also approve campaign rules for Israeli-ruled east Jerusalem, including allowing candidates to campaign in private areas, hang posters, carry out a survey to determine how many eligible voters there are in the city and distribute campaign literature, another official said.

In 1996, when Palestinians held their last presidential race, 1,200 of the 5,000 eligible voters in east Jerusalem cast a ballot, said an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity. He estimated that today there are about 10,000 eligible voters in east Jerusalem.

As in 1996, Israel will not permit public campaigning in east Jerusalem because it says such activity undermines its "sovereignty" over the city, the official added.

Israel has long limited Palestinian activity in east Jerusalem, which it captured and annexed after the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel and the Palestinians both want Jerusalem for a capital, presenting one of the biggest obstacles to a peace deal.

The Palestinian Authority will begin its door-to-door survey of east Jerusalem immediately after the Israeli Cabinet vote, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. Candidates are planning to hang campaign banners in east Jerusalem and hold rallies in stadiums and schools, he added.

"I hope that the Israeli side will facilitate and fully implement what was agreed upon in the last few days," Erekat said.

Sharon's Cabinet was meeting Saturday, a day after the official kickoff of the presidential campaign. Interim leader Mahmoud Abbas launched his campaign to succeed Yasser Arafat, by pledging to uphold the late leader's legacy and deliver on his promise of Palestinian statehood.

Abbas, the front-runner in the January race, plastered pictures of Arafat on his campaign posters and peppered his campaign announcement with references to him, hoping that their decades-long relationship -- rocky though it was -- will propel him to overwhelming victory.

Speaking to a hall filled with hundreds of supporters, Abbas called on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem -- captured in the 1967 Mideast War -- said he favored a negotiated peace deal and promised to respect the rights of the Palestinian refugees.

"We are choosing the path of peace and negotiation," said Abbas. "If there is no peace here, there will be no peace in the Middle East or the rest of the world."

Abbas also indicated he would try to reach agreement with the militant groups on ending violence, rather than confronting them.

Israel has long demanded that the Palestinians crack down on militants and dismantle the groups.

Although evasive on the issue, it was clear from Abbas' comments that he was not planning on rounding up and imprisoning militants and their leaders, as the Palestinian Authority did in 1996.

During a four-month stint as prime minister in 2003, Abbas reached a truce with the militants, and has been trying to cut a similar deal since Arafat's death in a French hospital on Nov. 11.

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