- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority is close to postponing a scheduled July 17 vote for a new parliament — possibly until next spring — in the face of a strong showing by Hamas in recent local elections.

Confusion dominated a session of the parliament yesterday at which lawmakers considered alternative dates, ranging from this November to April 2006.

“I cannot say so with 100 percent certainty, but it looks like they will be delayed,” said Qadura Fares, 43, a former Cabinet minister who represents Ramallah in the parliament.

“By the next week or the week after, the final word will be out,” Mr. Fares told The Washington Times.

Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah leader who is the deputy Palestinian Authority minister in charge of more than 200 municipal districts, including Ramallah, said he opposed a delay, but agreed that it is likely to happen.

“It will be very difficult to hit the July 17 date,” he said in a separate interview.

Fatah, the party long headed by Yasser Arafat, is the dominant bloc in the Palestinian government.

Within the clearly rattled Fatah leadership, many older members are pushing for elections next spring to give them time to prepare for a surge in support for Hamas, while Mr. Ghneim and others are hoping to compromise on a date in November.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who favors sticking to the schedule, is traveling to Latin America and Asia.

Turmoil within the Palestinian leadership is reflected in Mr. Abbas’ decision to delay a visit to meet President Bush this month in Washington.

Talk of delaying the election is drawing a strong protest from Hamas, the militant Islamic group responsible for most suicide bombings in Israel. Hamas has halted its attacks in order to participate in democratic elections for the first time.

In a separate interview, Sheik Hasan Yousef, 50, leader of Hamas on the West Bank, said the authority was wavering in its commitment to the date and called any delay “unacceptable.”

“We can’t postpone the election. That would be a horrific setback for the democratic policy,” Sheik Yousef said.

Some members of Hamas have threatened to resume attacks against Israel if the election is not held as scheduled. However, Sheik Yousef said the threats had come from low-level members of the group and did not reflect a decision by the leadership.

“As long as Israel is not acting aggressively toward us, we are committed to the state of calm,” he said. “Our organization is united as one voice. I assure you that no such breaches will take place without a decision from the top.”

A delay in the elections would remove a potential obstacle to Israel’s plan to withdraw Jews from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank beginning in August.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told The Washington Times earlier this week that he favored halting the so-called “disengagement plan” if Hamas gained control of the parliament in July.

Palestinians interviewed yesterday said Mr. Shalom’s comments had no impact on any decision about the date of the election.

But the Israeli minister also had speculated that Fatah leaders in the Palestinian Authority would seek to postpone the balloting to regroup after Hamas’ strong showing in local elections on May 5.

Although the outcome remains in dispute, Fatah captured about 50 of 84 municipal districts in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Hamas won about 30 districts, including larger towns such as Rafah in Gaza and Qalqilya in the West Bank as the rivals split the popular vote.

Mr. Fares and other Palestinian Authority leaders insisted that their primary concern was that the elections be conducted with as few problems as possible.

A noticeably worried, chain-smoking Mr. Fares painted a dire scenario if the elections do not run smoothly.

“We won’t have a parliament. It will be the end of Palestinian democracy and the end of the Palestinian Authority,” he warned.

Mr. Ghneim agreed that there were problems, but took a less apocalyptic view: “This is a crisis in Fatah. It is not a catastrophe.

“I don’t agree with the delay. It is better for Hamas. They will wave their green flags and take credit for the disengagement,” he said.

Sheik Yousef, a burly man with a neat salt-and-pepper beard, was far more upbeat than his Fatah opponents.

Buoyed by Hamas’ electoral showing earlier this month, he rejected Fatah’s worries: “These people have their own agenda, which they put before the national interest.”

Like many here, Sheik Yousef spoke about the corruption that has been endemic under the Palestinian Authority and was fully supportive of Mr. Abbas despite the latter’s membership in the opposing party.

“Only the democratic process can help Abu Mazen overcome the corrupt heritage he has inherited,” he said.

The last elections for the Palestinian parliament were held in 1996, with Fatah the only serious contender under a system in which lawmakers represented individual districts.

Mr. Abbas, in ongoing negotiations that persuaded Hamas to halt attacks and join the political process, agreed to a proportional system in which parties would receive seats based on the percentage of votes that they received.

Mr. Ghneim said it would take a minimum of six weeks just to decide on the details of that formula.

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