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Palestinians postpone elections set for January

Monday, December 23, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Palestinians on Sunday postponed their January elections, blaming the continuing Israeli occupation of their cities. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also called for Israeli election reforms following corruption charges in his own party.

The postponement of the Palestinian election is a setback for reforms in the Palestinian Authority demanded by the United States and Israel as a step toward resuming peace talks.

Israel charges that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is responsible for more than two years of Mideast violence and refuses to deal with him.

The Bush administration has no direct dealings with Arafat, hoping he would be sidelined in elections.

The Palestinian Cabinet accepted the recommendation of its election commission to delay the vote, set for Jan. 20, until 100 days after Israeli troops leave West Bank cities and towns. Since the Israelis have given no signs that they are preparing to pull back, that amounts to an indefinite postponement.

"It has become clear to all of us that to hold the elections while all Palestinian cities are under occupation is clearly impossible," Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said after the Cabinet meeting.

"But the elections commission will continue its efforts to count and register Palestinians who have the right to vote or become candidates."

Palestinians charge that continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is at the root of the violence, and they insist that diplomatic moves must go through Arafat, their elected leader.

Arafat has reshuffled his Cabinet twice in response to external and internal pressures to reform his regime, plagued by corruption and overlapping, competing security services.

However, Israel is the main power in the West Bank, its military responses to Palestinian terror attacks over the past two years all but erasing the map of territory handed over to Palestinian control under interim peace accords of the mid-1990s.

Israeli forces moved into most main Palestinian towns and cities starting last summer, searching for suspected militants and enforcing curfews confining hundreds of thousands of people to their homes. The June incursion followed Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said Palestinian violence, and not Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, was to blame for delaying the election.

"Israel would like very much to redeploy and leave these areas but can only do so once there is an end or a serious effort to stop terror," he said.

The White House and State Department had no immediate comment on the Palestinian decision.

Meanwhile, Sharon pledged in Israel's election campaign that his Likud Party's central committee no longer would choose parliamentary candidates. Sharon was forced into action by burgeoning charges of bribery and corruption in the party's selection process.

Israelis vote Jan. 28.

The 2,940-strong Likud central committee chose the party's list of candidates for the parliament, or Knesset, in a Dec. 8 internal election. Prominent Likud figures, like Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, were pushed far down the list, while unknowns took higher places, leading to suspicions and charges of payoffs.

Police have interrogated Likud members and made two arrests.

Sharon called for party reforms while speaking at a meeting of Likud Cabinet ministers Sunday. He said he favored primary elections for Knesset candidates all along.

Sharon repeated his pledge to expel any Likud member found guilty of corruption, adding, "We also have to examine a change in legislation that will strengthen the ability to throw out a Knesset member who has had charges filed against him."

Polls show that the corruption charges have hurt the Likud, but Sharon is still widely favored to form the next government.

Also Sunday, Sharon's office said Israeli Shin Bet security agents arrested a Palestinian, who was trained by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and helped Gaza militants build rockets and use explosives.

The suspect, Ahmed Awouteh, is a flight mechanic who worked at the Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli statement said.

Airport officials said they did not know of the supposed employee and would not comment further. The airport has been closed for more than a year after Israeli tanks tore up the runway as a punitive measure.


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