Palestinians Lobby White House To Press Israel on Arab Voting in Jerusalem

By Ori Nir

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — Claiming that Israel plans to obstruct Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority is urging the Bush administration and European governments to pressure Israel to permit unrestricted participation of Jerusalem Arab voters in the upcoming Palestinians elections.

At issue, Palestinian officials said, are about 120,000 residents of East Jerusalem who do not hold Israeli citizenship — or almost 10% of the Palestinian electorate. In two previous Palestinian elections, Israel permitted such residents to vote absentee from post offices in Jerusalem or at polling stations in the West Bank. Israel tolerated campaigning by Palestinian candidates unofficially, although it restricted it severely.

This time around, however, Palestinian officials are pushing for a more open and formal arrangement. They are hoping that they can convince the Americans — who are keen on promoting democracy — to press Israel into acceding to their demands.

For one, they want Israel to allow open electioneering. Israel sees that as problematic, however, because, unlike in the past, the militant Islamist group Hamas is set to participate in the election. That creates the possibility of neighborhoods in Jerusalem being plastered with campaign posters for candidates who have been involved in terrorism or publicly have endorsed violence.

Even more pointedly, the Palestinians are demanding polling stations in Jerusalem — an important symbol of their claims to sovereignty over the city’s Arab neighborhoods.

Israel, for its part, is determined to resist any step that would bolster Palestinian attempts to undermine Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and to divide the city in final-status negotiations.

Hind Khoury, the P.A.’s minister for Jerusalem affairs, was in Washington last week to press the issue of Jerusalem voters to senior administration officials and congressmen.

“We are very much concerned that Israel will not allow elections to take place. We have received a signal [from the Israelis] after they closed down voter-registration stations” in East Jerusalem, Khoury told reporters. She added, “We hope that the United States will support the right of [Arab] Jerusalemites to practice democracy.”

Khoury said Israel had not responded to several P.A. attempts to engage it in negotiations over election arrangements in Jerusalem.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Forward that his government has not discussed the issue of how the January 25, 2006, elections will be conducted.

“We will formulate a position on the issue shortly, but what our position could be is obvious, given that we oppose Hamas’s participation in the elections,” Mofaz said during a visit to Washington last week. He had met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administra-

tion officials. Mofaz said that the issue of Jerusalem voters was not raised in his meetings with American officials.

In January 2006, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem will elect 66 regional and 66 national representatives to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas is set to run in national Palestinian elections for the first time, with regional legislative candidates and a national slate.

Israel opposes Hamas’s participation in the elections and has announced that although it will not interfere with the polling process, it does not intend to offer any assistance. In most areas of the West Bank — and certainly in Gaza, from which Israel withdrew recently — campaigning and polling could take place fairly smoothly without Israel’s cooperation. Palestinians effectively rule most of the West Bank and could run a decent campaign if Israeli forces pull back from Palestinian population centers, international monitors said.

East Jerusalem, on the other hand, was annexed by Israel shortly after it was captured from Jordan, along with the rest of the West Bank, in the 1967 Six Day War. It remains under Israeli control, along with the rest of Jerusalem. The current debate involves residents of East Jerusalem and their descendants, who lived in the city under Jordanian rule and who have refused to accept Israeli citizenship.

Israel has banned the P.A. from functioning in the city. Still, Palestinians in East Jerusalem were permitted to participate in the P.A. elections in 1996 and 2005. In January 1996, East Jerusalem residents voted in the Palestinian presidential election and selected six local representatives to the legislative council. This past January, they also participated in the presidential elections.

According to Ammar Dweik, chief electoral officer at the Palestinian Central Election Commission, most eligible voters in East Jerusalem did not vote, fearing Israeli retribution. Dweik said those who did vote believed that the post offices were closely monitored by Israel, so they opted to cast their ballot at West Bank voting stations.

Even as Palestinian officials press for a more open and formal arrangement this time around, they fear that Israel will ban the limited campaigning and voting that it has permitted in the past.

“Israel certainly has the leverage in Jerusalem, and we are worried that it may use it,” said Hanna Siniora, a veteran Palestinian politician who intends to run for one of the six regional Palestinian parliamentary seats reserved for East Jerusalem. Specifically, Siniora is set to campaign for one of the two Jerusalem seats reserved for Christians.

The key difference this time around is that militant armed factions are fielding candidates in the upcoming elections, said Nathan Brown, an expert on Palestinian politics. Brown is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

Not only Hamas but also the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, two armed Marxist groups, will be running as political parties.

“This time,” Brown said, “Israel may be faced with posters carrying Hamas’s emblem” and belligerent Hamas slogans in East Jerusalem.

While Palestinians seem prepared to accept some restrictions on campaigning in East Jerusalem, they said that the post office voting arrangement would not work this time.

“It’s inadequate,” Dweik said. He explained that in 1996, East Jerusalem had not yet been walled off from the West Bank, so voters could travel freely to vote in polling stations outside the city.

But Dweik said this is no longer an option, as the post have the capacity to serve a maximum of 5,000 voters on Election Day, while the Palestinian Central Election Commission estimates that the number of eligible voters in East Jerusalem is close to 120,000.

In 1996, Dweik said, about 28,000 East Jerusalem residents voted. He added that in the presidential election earlier this year, the number of voters from East Jerusalem was 25,000. “We think that more residents of Jerusalem will vote if they have easy access to polling stations,” he said.

According to Dweik, the Palestinian Central Elections Commission so far has registered an estimated 80% of the 1,350,000 eligible voters, not including East Jerusalem. A drive to register the rest will open next week.

Candidates’ registration will open November 24 for a period of 12 days. Campaigning will start January 3, and will cease 24 hours before the polls open January 25.

David Makovsky, who directs the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, predicted that, even though the Israelis and the Palestinians had yet to open negotiations on the issue, both sides probably would agree to an arrangement similar to the one that had been adopted in the past.

Although neither side sees that formula as perfect, it is now a status-quo arrangement that has been approved previously by international monitors, even if unenthusiastically, Makovsky said.

“Israel has accepted it in the past,” Makovsky said. “It now made a decision to let this election go through, and it will have to deal with the implications.”

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