U.S.: Israel should let East Jerusalem residents vote in PA elections

By Aluf Benn and Nathan Guttman

Haaretz

Kislev 2, 2004

The United States will press Israel to allow East Jerusalem residents to participate in elections for a new Palestinian Authority chairman and Palestinian legislature. Elections are expected to take place in January.

Washington will also ask Jerusalem to withdraw the Israel Defense Forces from Palestinian cities and to ease Palestinian travel throughout the West Bank in order to facilitate the election campaign and the balloting.

However, both American and Israeli sources in Washington said the U.S. would not demand a full withdrawal of Israeli forces to the pre-intifada lines - and even withdrawals from Palestinian cities would depend on indications that the new PA leadership was prepared to take responsibility for security and prevent areas evacuated by the IDF from serving as launching pads for terror attacks.

The Oslo Accords explicitly allow East Jerusalem residents to participate in PA elections, and they did so in the last election, in 1996. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem residents involved this time as well, and Washington is backing this stance, as it believes that Israel must do everything possible to bolster the legitimacy of the election, and hence of the new leadership that it will produce.

Israel's government, however, is split over whether to accede to Washington's demand. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon favors Palestinian elections, but said that the participation of East Jerusalem residents "requires discussion," and no such discussion has yet occurred. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom opposes allowing East Jerusalem residents to participate, while Interior Minister Avraham Poraz favors their participation.

But several senior Israeli officials who last week expressed vehement opposition to allowing East Jerusalem residents to participate in the election changed their tunes over the weekend in response to U.S. President George W. Bush's public support for elections. Yesterday, these officials said that Israel would have trouble opposing a democratic process that enjoyed American and international backing. Moreover, they said, just as U.S. citizens living in Israel voted in the recent American elections, PA citizens living in East Jerusalem should be able to vote in Palestinian elections.

Speaking at a joint press conference in Washington on Friday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush said that he was determined to bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of his second term, but declined to unveil any new initiative toward this end, and specifically rejected Blair's proposal for either an international peace conference or a special American envoy to the Middle East. Instead, he reiterated that an essential precondition for Palestinian statehood was Palestinian democracy, and therefore, the focus right now must be on facilitating the upcoming Palestinian elections.

For this reason, Bush also refrained from making any public demands on Israel that were unrelated to elections, such as a settlement freeze, saying that Israel's main task now must be to facilitate the elections.

In Israel, the defense establishment was surprised by the PA's decision to call elections in January, having previously predicted that elections would take much longer to organize. Defense establishment discussions of "the day after" Yasser Arafat's death had therefore completely ignored the issue of elections. Now, the defense establishment will have to reevaluate its suggested "gestures" of troop withdrawals from Palestinian cities and increased Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank, as it had originally proposed implementing them gradually, over a period much longer than the next two months.

"It's clear that we will make an effort to enable freedom of movement for [election] activists and voters, and arrangements for the day or two of the elections," said a senior government source. "It's possible to reach an agreement; this is a mutual interest."

The source cited the IDF's withdrawal from Ramallah during Arafat's funeral as an example of successful coordination. Israel has also permitted Palestinian policemen in Ramallah to bear arms until Tuesday, when the official mourning period for Arafat ends; at that point, this concession will be reassessed.

But government sources said it was unlikely that Israel would free Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, a popular politician who is currently serving five life sentences for murder, to run in the PA elections. "In Israel, there is a separation of powers, and the man was convicted in a judicial proceeding," said one source.

Arafat's death is expected to spark a wave of high-level visits to Ramallah, as Israel's long-standing refusal to receive any diplomat who visited the PA chairman expired along with Arafat. The first visitors will include the foreign ministers of Britain, Egypt and Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who will meet with Shalom in Washington tomorrow, is also considering visiting Jerusalem and Ramallah next week.

For now, the United States is refraining from any dramatic gestures toward the new PA leadership, both for fear that an American embrace would undermine it, and because the situation in the territories remains unclear. But sources in Washington said that after the PA elections, if the new leadership appeared to be serious about reform, Bush was likely to press Sharon to turn his unilateral disengagement plan into a negotiated withdrawal.