The Israeli Cabinet yesterday unanimously approved voting in east Jerusalem, defusing a crisis that threatened to derail Palestinian elections.
The vote was the first major political test for acting prime minister Ehud Olmert, the likely political heir to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remained comatose in a Jerusalem hospital yesterday, 11 days after suffering a massive stroke. Later in the day, Attorney General Meni Mazuz was expected to notify Olmert that he will continue to serve as acting prime minister through Israel's March 28 elections, Justice Ministry spokesman Yaakov Galanti said.
Mazuz will continue to define Sharon as temporarily, rather than permanently, incapacitated because doctors treating the prime minister at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital have not yet offered a prognosis, the Haaretz daily reported yesterday. A declaration of permanent incapacitation, which would require Cabinet to name a successor to Sharon, would be irreversible.
Hospital spokesman Ron Krumer said yesterday that Sharon's condition -- critical but stable -- was unchanged.
Sharon has failed to awaken since doctors began lifting his heavy sedation nearly a week ago, prompting concerns that he might never emerge from his coma.
Olmert, Sharon's ally and a proponent of further territorial concessions to the Palestinians, has quietly been easing the turbulence created by Sharon's illness. His ability to end the crisis over voting in disputed Jerusalem was seen as a first litmus test of his political skills.
Jerusalem is the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides claiming the city as its capital. Israel initially planned to bar Palestinian voting in east Jerusalem because candidates from the armed Hamas group were to appear on the ballot -- a stand that provoked Palestinian threats to cancel the election because of Jerusalem's symbolic significance.
But last week, Israel reversed course after coming under pressure from the US, which didn't want the voting scuttled because it is eager to promote democracy in the region.
According to the proposal Cabinet approved yesterday, elections in Jerusalem will go ahead so long as members of armed groups like Hamas, which call for Israel's destruction, won't be allowed to run.
"I welcome this decision," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, calling on international election observers to ensure that election campaigning and the voting wouldn't be impeded.
Hamas is expected to make a strong showing in the overall balloting and possibly dominate parliament, having been bolstered by its clean-hands image and growing violence in Palestinian-run areas.
Over the weekend, US officials warned that millions of dollars of aid could be in jeopardy if the Islamic group were to join the Palestinian government.
With the east Jerusalem voting crisis resolved, Olmert faced another immediate test -- a standoff with Jewish settlers in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, where 500 settlers live among 170,000 Palestinians. Eight settler families had been given until yesterday to evacuate a neighborhood they took over four years ago. They are to be removed forcibly in a month's time if they disregard the evacuation order, as they are expected to do.
In recent days, hundreds of settlers outraged by the order have hurled stones at Palestinian homes in Hebron and tried to force their way into areas of the city that are off-limits to them.