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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
No final decision has yet been made on whether Israel will allow voting for the January 25 Palestinian Authority legislative elections from east Jerusalem post offices as has been done in the past, a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday night.
The official's comments came at the end of a day during which reports that Israel might not allow Palestinians to mail in ballots from east Jerusalem post offices, as was done in the PA elections in January 2005 and in 1996, led to threats by some PA officials that the PA elections would be postponed.
"We don't want the Palestinians to blame Israel for postponing the elections," the official said, explaining why no decision had yet been made.
At the same time, the official said allowing voting to take place in Jerusalem for elections in which Hamas was taking part "would go against everything we stand for. It would be a victory for Hamas; give them legitimacy."
The Prime Minister's Office overruled the Foreign Ministry on this issue, with the Foreign Ministry taking a position that the rules that applied during the PA presidential elections in January and the PA legislative elections in 1996 should apply this time as well. In both those elections voting was possible in east Jerusalem post offices.
Mathias Eick, the press officer for the EU team sent here to monitor the PA elections, said the head of the observer delegation, Belgian European Parliament member Veronique de Keyser, met with Israeli officials and discussed the issue earlier in the week.
"During the meeting we had with Israeli officials, we did receive indications that the Israelis may not allow voting to take place in east Jerusalem," Eick said. He said the EU "indicated" to the Israelis that "we were looking forward to elections in east Jerusalem."
Some observers speculated that the Prime Minister's Office's position on the issue, and its overruling of the Foreign Ministry on the matter, was motivated by electoral considerations, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office wanting to appear tough on Jerusalem sovereignty at a time when it has become a hot campaign issue.
Israeli sources said among the officials de Keyser met with were Sharon's top adviser, Dov Weisglass, and Foreign Ministry director-general Ron Prosor.
The official in the Prime Minister's Office said a final decision would be made after consultations with the Palestinians, the US and the EU.
"We are in favor of the PA elections and don't want to interfere with the process," he said. "Practical solutions, such as placing ballot boxes in Abu Dis, can be found."
The official said by allowing Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote for Hamas, "we would be condoning support in Jerusalem for a terrorist organization. What kind of message does that send out?"
Israel's quandary, he said, was in finding a way for east Jerusalem Arabs to participate in the election while "not violating the rule of law in Jerusalem."
Meanwhile, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas expressed deep concern over the issue, but stopped short of threatening to call off the vote if the elections were not held in the city.
"This is a dangerous step and one that is important for the future of the Palestinian people," he told reporters after meeting with visiting Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. "The parliamentary elections should be held in east Jerusalem as in 1996," he added.
Abbas said the PA had not been notified by Israel about a decision to ban the vote in the city.
"All that we have heard so far is based on reports in the Israeli media, where Israeli government officials were quoted as saying that they won't allow us to hold elections in east Jerusalem," he added.
Abbas said the PA leadership would soon discuss the matter and issue a formal response. He said he briefed Suleiman on the latest developments surrounding the parliamentary elections and the general situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The meeting was held against a backdrop of reports that Egypt was trying to persuade the PA to postpone the elections out of fear that Hamas would score a landslide victory. Suleiman delivered a message to Abbas from President Hosni Mubarak who, according to top PA officials, was worried by the rising power of Hamas and the ongoing state of lawlessness and anarchy in PA-controlled areas.
PA Information Minister Nabil Shaath took a tougher line, warning that the parliamentary elections would be canceled if the Arab residents of Jerusalem were banned from voting.
"The Israeli threats are in violation of international law and the Oslo Accords," he said. "They are also in violation of previous Israeli commitments and assurances from the Quartet."
Shaath claimed that a ban on voting in Jerusalem should be seen in the context of Israel's efforts to "Judaize Jerusalem, abolish its Arab character and consolidate Israeli occupation in the city." He said the elections would not take place if Jerusalem was excluded.
"We are now in touch with Arab and international parties to force Israel to rescind this dangerous decision, which basically means annexing Jerusalem and sabotaging the Palestinian democratic process," Shaath said.
Political activist Mustafa Barghouti, who is running in the elections at the head of the Independent Palestine List, on Wednesday warned against postponing the elections, saying such a move could plunge the PA-controlled territories into more violence and chaos. He also urged the PA to challenge Israel by holding the elections in Jerusalem at all cost.
In a related development, Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip sent a message to Abbas on Wednesday urging him to postpone the parliamentary elections because of divisions in the ruling party.
"At this historic phase, we call upon you to assume your historic and organizational responsibility and to postpone the elections," the Fatah leaders said in their message.
They also expressed deep concern about the Hamas victories in the last round of municipal elections in the West Bank, saying it was inconceivable to hold the elections while Fatah was witnessing a severe crisis.
Diplomatic sources in Washington said the US was not intervening in the matter of allowing full PA elections in east Jerusalem.
However, Afif Safieh, the new head of the PA delegation in Washington, has met with American officials on the matter and said the US administration showed understanding for the need to have full elections in Jerusalem.
"I believe everyone in the international community wants to see the elections take place on time, by the same model that was used in the 1996 elections," he told The Jerusalem Post.
Safieh said the matter had to do with the Israeli elections and called on the US and international community not to allow "the Israeli domestic issues to spill over into the Palestinian elections."
"Israel is misreading the atmosphere in Washington and, unfortunately, the Americans are not assertive enough in making Israel understand their views," Safieh said.
Nathan Guttman contributed to this report