- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Longtime chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday that upcoming elections in Israel and Palestinian-controlled lands could bring the biggest political shift in the Middle East standoff in two generations, but only if the Israeli government does not “sabotage” the Palestinian vote.

Mr. Erekat told a Washington audience that democratic reforms in the Palestinian territory remain on track ahead of the Jan. 25 parliamentary vote, despite fresh irregularities reported yesterday in the primaries being held by Mr. Erekat’s ruling Fatah party. A year after the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Fatah is being pressed heavily by the militant Islamist group Hamas in the vote.

“This election will be a turning point in Palestinian political life,” Mr. Erekat said.

The Israeli vote, to be held March 28, will feature Prime Minister Ariel Sharon running at the head of a new centrist party after breaking away from his conservative base in the Likud Party.

He will be joined by longtime rival Shimon Peres, who abandoned his own Labor Party base after unexpectedly losing a leadership fight to leftist labor leader Amir Peretz last week.

Both votes take place against the backdrop of Mr. Sharon’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, a decision that infuriated Israeli hard-liners, and of renewed pressure by the Bush administration and others to push for a final settlement to the long and violent dispute.

Mr. Erekat said the Israeli campaign will not be dominated by economic, social or religious issues. “It’s about me, about the Palestinians.”

Mr. Erekat said he had no hard evidence that Mr. Sharon was trying to “sabotage” the Palestinian vote, but he said Israeli authorities have not answered repeated requests for help in staging the elections, in matters as mundane as approving passage of ballot boxes through Israeli territory.

Mr. Sharon and U.S. officials have expressed deep misgivings about the presence of Hamas in any new Palestinian government. The group’s militant wing organized suicide bombings against Israelis in the violent uprising that began in 2000 and has only agreed to a temporary cease-fire set to expire at the end of the year.

“I hope [Mr. Sharon] will leave us alone,” Mr. Erekat said. “I hope he will not try to impede our normal democratic growth.”

But the democratic growing pains of Mr. Erekat’s own Fatah movement were on display again yesterday.

Reuters news agency reported that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s leader, yesterday suspended primary elections in the West Bank, a day after being forced to call a halt to similar votes in Gaza.

The primaries, seen as critical to assembling a strong slate of Fatah candidates to challenge Hamas in January, were suspended amid reports of violence, voter intimidation and procedural irregularities.

Mr. Abbas, whose own credibility is on the line in the primary vote, said yesterday some successful primary races had been concluded.

“As for the areas in which elections did not take place, we will find a proper solution,” he added.

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