Palestinians set Jan. 9 for election
Palestinians set Jan. 9 as the date for presidential elections to replace Yasser Arafat on Sunday while the United States hinted it may be ready to resume Middle East peacemaking.
"There will be free and direct elections to elect the president of the Palestinian National Authority on Jan. 9, 2005," interim president Rawhi Fattouh told reporters, but officials insisted Israel pull back from occupied areas.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom left on Saturday for the United States where he and Secretary of State Colin Powell will discuss the "new situation in the region," Israeli officials said.
Arafat's death on Thursday left power in the hands of veteran deputies without his popular credibility. They want to hold elections within the 60 days set by law to prevent a breakdown in order and revive peace moves with Israel.
The flux in the Palestinian leadership together with US President Bush's re-election have bolstered peace hopes just as Israel has taken its first steps to pull Jewish settlers out of Gaza, home to 1.3 million Palestinians.
During his first term in office Bush sidelined Arafat and came under criticism across the globe for not pushing Israelis and Palestinians toward peace.
Powell said on Saturday he hoped to meet Palestinian leaders "in the very near future" as part of a fresh push for peace and a U.S. official said that could be at a Nov. 22-23 conference in Egypt or at some other time in the Palestinian territories.
Speaking at the half-demolished Muqata compound where Arafat spent his final years confined by Israel and where he was buried on Friday, Fattouh said the period for nominating candidates would begin on November 20 and run for 12 days.
But senior Palestinian minister Saeb Erekat said: "If the Israelis continue to obstruct voting in East Jerusalem or keep their army inside our areas (of self-rule enshrined by 1990s interim peace deals), I don't think we can hold elections."
Powell said on Saturday Washington wanted Israel to allow Palestinians in occupied areas to move freely to enable a smooth vote for Arafat's successor.
"So much of this will depend on President Bush getting the Israeli government to comply on creating conditions for elections," Erekat told Reuters.
Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want on land Israel took in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel shut Palestinian voter registration offices there in September, as it deems all of Jerusalem its indivisible capital.
But political sources close to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Sunday he would likely relent on Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem if pressed by Washington. Palestinians there voted in presidential and legislative elections in 1996.
DOUBTS There are doubts whether any in the old Palestinian guard could win a majority among a severely factionalized electorate.
Arafat's moderate successor as Palestine Liberation Organization chief, Mahmoud Abbas, 69, is the early frontrunner for the nomination of the mainstream Fatah national movement.
But only one man in Fatah, 45-year-old charismatic firebrand Marwan Barghouthi, boasts broad appeal and he is serving a life prison term in Israel for orchestrating suicide bombings, a charge he denies.
His lawyer said Barghouthi might run from his cell, though some questioned whether he would challenge Abbas. There would also be resistance from Israel to his candidacy.
Sharon brushed aside speculation Barghouthi might be pardoned. "Contrary to what I hear in the media on the matter, we never release terrorists who committed murder inside Israel," he told his cabinet on Sunday.