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White House Cool to Palestinian Proposal To Hold General Elections

WASHINGTON — In another diplomatic victory for Israel’s government, the Bush administration is turning a cold shoulder to a Palestinian initiative that would schedule general elections in the West Bank and Gaza as soon as January 2005.

The Palestinians are touting the idea as a tool to produce a new, reformed leadership, but the administration has indicated that it agrees with an Israeli contention that the early date would be the wrong timing for Palestinian general elections, according to Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel activists.

The administration rejected the initiative because of the concern that elections would reproduce and thus reaffirm the existing leadership, headed by Yasser Arafat, who both Israel and Washington reject as an interlocutor, Israeli and American sources said.

The case for holding general elections soon, which until recently was an idea advocated only by a handful of Palestinian intellectuals, was made last week by Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat in a Washington meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Erekat, a member of the Palestinian Cabinet, told reporters after the June 23 meeting with Powell: “We hear that the American administration speaks about the [Greater] Middle East. They want democracy, human rights, and accountability. As Palestinians we want this too and we ask them to begin with us.” He added: “I hope that those who talk about a new [Palestinian] leadership will be consistent.”

But Powell was cold to the idea. Following the meeting, he told reporters that although the United States supports the principle of elections, such elections “have to be well thought out, well prepared, and consistent with what’s going on with respect to the road map.” According to the road map — the American-led plan to restart negotiations leading to a Palestinian statehood — the Palestinian Authority must fight terrorism effectively and assert its security power before elections can be held.

Palestinians say, however, that they cannot effectively fight terrorism as long as Israel is present in Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza. In the current atmosphere in those territories, support for violence against Israel is so overwhelming that fighting it would mean political suicide for the Palestinian Authority.

A poll published last week by the Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre, an East Jerusalem-based Palestinian think tank, showed high levels of support for anti-Israeli violence among Palestinians. Of those interviewed in a representative sample, 63% said they strongly or somewhat support suicide bombings against Israeli targets, and 65% said that “resumption of the military operations against Israeli targets” is a “suitable response within the current political conditions.”

A senior Palestinian official who recently visited Washington told senior members of the Bush administration that the main problem facing the Palestinian political establishment is a lack of legitimacy.

“The only way you can assert yourself as a security force is if you have legitimacy,” the official said, “and the only way to get such legitimacy is through elections.” General elections were last held in the West Bank and Gaza in 1996. Arafat was elected president, and 88 activists, most from Arafat’s Fatah faction, were elected to the Legislative Council for a five-year term.

Members of the Palestinian Authority are eager to hold general elections for another reason, Palestinian officials and American sources said: They want to turn Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank into a bilateral process. For a government that draws most of its power and legitimacy from external recognition and foreign support, being ignored during the most dramatic development in the history of the West Bank and Gaza emphasizes its weakness, Palestinian and American sources said.

“Unilateralism significantly weakens the Palestinian Authority,” said a Washington diplomat.

Skeptical American diplomats reportedly told Palestinian politicians recently that the United States will not support elections that are certain to re-empower and legitimate Yasser Arafat, and that are likely to reinforce Hamas and Islamic Jihad — organizations that America defines as terrorist groups — as legitimate political entities. The Palestinians replied that even though Arafat is likely to be re-elected president of the P.A., new Palestinian legislation will turn his position to a semi-ceremonial one. As for legitimizing Hamas and Islamic Jihad, pro-election Palestinian officials told their American interlocutors that it is better to have a domesticated opposition that will be compelled to play by the rules than a rogue opposition committed to destruction. Administration officials were not convinced, sources said.

While the Bush administration opposes the drive to expedite presidential and parliamentary elections in the P. A., however, it supports the idea of holding local, municipal elections soon. Such elections could produce a broad inventory of local leaders, who could change the overall Palestinian political environment, American officials said.

Tamara Wittes, research fellow at Washington’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said that she is skeptical of the feasibility of Palestinian political reform. She said, however, that “even beginning the discussion of what Palestinian political leadership should look like and debating what’s important — merely restarting the process of politics — is a positive development.”

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