- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

NABLUS, West Bank — International monitors, including a team of 79 from a U.S. group, say they expect a higher standard in Sunday’s vote than in the first West Bank and Gaza Strip presidential vote in 1996, which all but ensured a landslide win for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The earlier election gave Mr. Arafat an advantage over challengers, but monitors were lenient in their criticism because the election was seen at the time as a critical step in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The race is more competitive this time, even though Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is considered a lock to win.

“Things have improved. The [Palestinian] election commission has done a good job,” said Les Campbell, Middle East regional director at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

“There’s a sense now that there is a choice. … When Yasser Arafat ran, there was a sense that there is one choice.”

About 500 international monitors are expected to observe the vote on Sunday, and they will be assessing voter access and rule transparency and determining whether there is a level playing field for the candidates.

NDI’s 79-member delegation is led by former President Jimmy Carter, former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt. The NDI mission is a collaboration with the European Union, which is overseeing the observer effort with 300 monitors.

In campaigning yesterday, Mr. Abbas, on a campaign swing through Nablus, nearly called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a partner for peace and said he would be ready to resume negotiations with Israel immediately after the Palestinian vote.

“I can’t say that Ariel Sharon isn’t a partner, but only in the future will we know if he’s serious,” he told reporters at a press conference at Nablus’ A-Najah University.

Earlier this week, Mr. Abbas called Israel the “Zionist enemy.”

Also yesterday, Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party concluded coalition agreements with the center-left Labor Party and a smaller ultra-Orthodox party, giving the Israeli prime minister a new base in parliament on which to move forward on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

The NDI monitors praised Israel’s effort to allow the Palestinian voting go forward unimpeded. Israel has pledged to withdraw all of its soldiers from inside Palestinian cities in the West Bank starting a day before the election running through the day after the balloting.

“We don’t want to let any Palestinian voter to see any Israeli soldier on his way to the ballot,” said Lior Ben Dor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.

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