The Palestinian Authority will postpone its parliamentary elections if Israel bars Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from participating, the Palestinian deputy prime minister said on Wednesday.
Israeli officials said they would not allow voting in East Jerusalem as part of the elections scheduled for Jan. 25 if the Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas was involved.
An Israeli official told the Reuters news agency that Hamas' involvement was unacceptable because its constitution calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.
However, a poll published yesterday revealed that 50 percent of Israelis would favor peace talks with Hamas, despite its calls to destroy the Jewish state. The poll, conducted this month by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found 47 percent would be opposed, said Yaacov Shamir, who conducted the survey.
Shamir said Israelis had not grown more accepting of Hamas but understood the group's popularity among Palestinians was growing.
"This shows an Israeli awareness of what is going on in the Palestinian public, that Hamas is serious about its intention to play a role in Palestinian politics," he said.
"We cannot prevent this, and the public understands that."
Many observers believe electoral success would force Hamas to re-evaluate its strategy and it would realize that it could achieve more through democratic politics than through paramilitary violence.
Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath told reporters that an Israeli ban would constitute grounds for postponing the election.
"We cannot hold elections anywhere if the Palestinians in Jerusalem are not allowed to vote," he said.
The Palestinian Authority will try to bring international pressure to force Israel to reconsider, Shaath added.
"But if we don't succeed, this will mean there will be no elections. For us, Jerusalem is more important than any other thing."
Palestinians in East Jerusalem were allowed to vote in presidential elections early this year and in parliamentary elections in 1996. However, Israel is always reluctant to allow free elections on the territory it claims because it sees them as a threat to its sovereignty. During the presidential elections, candidates were arrested and posters were taken down by Israeli police.
There are concerns among members of Fatah, the once dominant Palestinian faction, that Hamas will defeat them in the poll. Hamas did very well in municipal elections, taking control of cities that were once Fatah strongholds.
But Palestinian officials denied that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was using Israel's threat as a pretext to call off the vote.
Abbas has insisted the vote will take place as scheduled, but said yesterday: "This is a big responsibility that must be studied carefully."
Hamas is adamant the elections should take place as scheduled -- after they were postponed during the summer.