Local Time

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Arabs Put Forth Demands to Washington

Arab News

JEDDAH, 15 November 2004 — With the Palestinian presidential election
date fixed for Jan. 9, intense diplomatic moves are expected to begin
this week to allow maximum participation and greater transparency for
the first post-Arafat exercise in democracy.

Arab and other Muslim countries have welcomed the Palestinian election
and pledged their support to the new leadership organizing it. But
they also plan to ask the United States to pressure Israel on three
issues they regard as crucial for the legitimacy of the election:

• Israel should lift its siege of the Palestinian towns and cities to
allow a normal election campaign with candidates holding public
rallies and organizing grassroots canvassing.

• Israel should allow Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic West Bank
leader, imprisoned on charges of terrorism to stand as a candidate.
Barghouti's friends say he has given them the go-ahead for taking the
official steps needed for his candidacy.

• Israel should allow the Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem to
participate in the election as they did in 1996.

The Palestinian and Arab demands are expected to be put to the US
Secretary of State Colin Powell next week when he meets the foreign
ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait and Iraq at
the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh for a two-day conference.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu-Ghaith called on the United States
to convene a meeting of the so-called "Quartet" to thrash out a joint
strategy for supporting the Palestinian elections. The Quartet
consists of the US, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet yesterday that he
would not rule out the possibility of allowing the 230,000
Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to vote. Several months ago,
however, Israeli police raided voter registration stations in the
area, preventing most residents from registering.

Potential voters in East Jerusalem account for almost 30 percent of
the total Palestinian electorate. The Palestinian Authority has
registered almost 90 percent of voters in Gaza and the West Bank and
hopes to register the remaining 10 percent within the next few weeks.
But an election that excludes the voters of East Jerusalem would lose
much of its legitimacy if only because the future of the holy city is
one of the central issues of the 57-year-old conflict.

Speaking to the Cabinet, Sharon noted that East Jerusalem Arabs voted
in the 1996 Palestinian elections, government officials said, speaking
on condition of anonymity.

Other senior officials, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and
Education Minister Limor Livnat, said they oppose allowing East
Jerusalem Palestinians to vote. The Cabinet made no decision on the
matter, and officials said the issue would be discussed further.

US Embassy spokesman Paul Patin said Washington would like Israel to
help ensure that the Palestinian elections go smoothly. Patin declined
to say whether the United States would pressure Israel on the East
Jerusalem issue.

The Palestinians are trying to rally international pressure on Israel
to ease conditions ahead of the vote, both on the East Jerusalem issue
and the large Israeli military presence in the West Bank.

Israel has dozens of checkpoints, restricting Palestinian movement,
and its army frequently conducts operations aimed at militants.

"Israelis have begun obstructing and putting obstacles in the way of
free and fair elections," said Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat. "We urge
President Bush not to allow the Israelis to obstruct these elections."

Persuading Israel to let Barghouti run may be even more difficult.
While there is no specific Israeli law to prevent a prisoner from
becoming a candidate in an election, the present Israeli leadership
regards Barghouti as a dangerous terrorist rather than a future
partner in peace negotiations. The way things look now, Israel is
determined not to release Barghouti, who is serving multiple life
terms for his role in the killings of four Israelis and a Greek monk.
But his prominence could put pressure on Israel to free him.

Barghouti is perhaps the strongest candidate to oust Arafat's old
guard of supporters and many believe him to be the only leader capable
of unifying squabbling Palestinian factions.

That makes Barghouti an attractive option for Washington which is
looking for a new generation of leaders in the region. He is also the
only candidate likely to win votes from the radical Islamist groups
such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Erekat said the Fatah candidate would likely be chosen by the
movement's small central committee and not in a primary.

The committee would likely nominate Abbas, 69, an old guard politician
who has taken over Arafat's role as head of the PLO. During a PLO
executive committee meeting yesterday, participants said no decisions
were made on a presidential candidate.

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