- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority decided yesterday to hold its first local elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, bowing to pressure to end the chaos and corruption in many Palestinian towns.

The increasing anarchy persuaded a reluctant Yasser Arafat to allow the vote, the first electoral test of his government in eight years, officials said, despite fears that his opponents, particularly the militant group Hamas, could gain ground.

The elections are to be held in stages in coming months, with the first to take place in the West Bank town of Jericho by late August.

The Cabinet said an Israeli troop withdrawal from Palestinian population centers is not a prerequisite for the local vote, removing an obstacle that has thwarted elections previously.

However, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia reiterated that legislative and presidential elections could take place only after Israeli troops leave. He said a June deadline set by his government is unrealistic.

Mr. Qureia said he instead will ask the ‘Quartet’ of Mideast mediators — the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — to propose a date, apparently to prod Israel to withdraw troops and remove roadblocks.

He said he would raise the idea in a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in Berlin next week.

Elections are needed to counter Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s contention that he does not have a Palestinian negotiating partner, Mr. Qureia said.

“We cannot set a date because of the occupation,” Mr. Qureia said after the Cabinet meeting. “We will call on the Quartet to suggest or propose a new date so we can put an end to [people saying] there … is no partner” for peace.

Mr. Sharon has been pushing for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, saying he does not have a Palestinian partner because the Palestinian Authority is not arresting militant groups responsible for deadly attacks on Israelis.

His plan, which was rejected by his Likud Party, irked Palestinians, who fear that Israel is trying to impose a border and grab large chunks of the West Bank.

The Palestinians held their only general elections in 1996 as part of an interim peace deal with Israel. Mr. Arafat was overwhelmingly elected Palestinian Authority president, and his Fatah movement won a majority in the 88-member parliament.

Israeli and U.S. efforts to sideline Mr. Arafat have only contributed to his continued appeal to many Palestinians, who also consider him a unifying force and fear that his ouster could unleash bloody factional fighting.

Israeli officials said they do not expect local elections to contribute to Palestinian reforms as long as Mr. Arafat controls the government.

Municipal elections were last held in the West Bank in 1976, under Israeli military rule, and there has not been a local vote in Gaza in more than four decades.

Since the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, mayors have been appointed, usually Fatah stalwarts loyal to Mr. Arafat.

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