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With Palestinian Areas in Chaos, Washington Insists Vote Must Go on

January 5, 2006
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Just weeks ahead of scheduled legislative elections, the Palestinian Authority is getting a double-barreled message from Washington: Do the vote, and do it right. The Bush administration wants P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas to keep the vote on track for Jan. 25, and to keep the peace so Palestinians can safely reach ballot boxes.

Congress wants him to keep Hamas out of the elections as well.

The message-sending doesn’t stop in Washington. The international community, embodied by the diplomatic “Quartet” guiding the Middle East peace process — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — says a Palestinian government including terrorists would be unacceptable.

The rush of warnings reflects widespread concern that Abbas, favored for his relative moderation, is losing control as the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in September, descends into internecine violence.

“The Palestinian Authority needs to provide an atmosphere of calm and safety for the citizens of the Gaza Strip, that’s important,” Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said Wednesday. “It is the primary responsibility of any government entity to provide for the welfare of its citizens in terms of the safety. Clearly we don’t have that right now in Gaza.”

Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s top envoy to the region, said continued violence against Israel also undermines Abbas’ claim that the Palestinian polity is moderating.

“Israel got out of Gaza, but Kassam rockets are still being shot out of Gaza,” Ross told JTA. “The impulse is to say, ‘What are the Palestinians doing?’ “

The elections were originally scheduled for last July but Abbas postponed them, citing similar chaotic conditions. His suggestion this week that he could postpone them again was not welcomed by McCormack.

“We see no reason why those elections should not proceed on Jan. 25,” he said. “We believe that the Palestinian Authority should be concentrating on preparations for those elections, so that Palestinian people can vote in an atmosphere that is free from violence or coercion or intimidation.”

Ross said the Bush administration, which is promoting democratization throughout the Middle East, is hardly in a position to sanction another postponement just because terrorist groups such as Hamas might get a foothold in government.

“It’s one of the consequences of having adopted democratization as a linchpin, without defining” the dimensions of that democracy, Ross said.

Another complicating factor is the series of raids by gunmen in recent weeks on offices of Abbas’ Fatah party as a split between the young and old guards in the ruling Palestinian movement turns increasingly violent.

McCormack announced plans for David Welch, the top State Department envoy to the region, and Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser, to visit the region soon.

Keeping the elections on track will top their agenda, but they also will have tough messages for Israel, given its failure to implement an agreement to open Gaza’s trade crossings, brokered in November by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“The second component of the Rafah agreement should be implemented,” Afif Safieh, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s new Washington envoy, said Tuesday in a meeting he called with the Jewish media. The first component was the opening of the border between Gaza and Egypt.

“The Israelis have not respected reciprocity,” said Safieh, who met with Welch and Abrams in recent days, and who noted that at least one Israeli government report credited Abbas in part for the drastic drop in terrorism in 2005.

Israel notes the drop in violence, but wants the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its pledge under the “road map” peace plan to disarm terrorist groups.

There is some sympathy for the Palestinian view in the Bush administration. U.S. officials are frustrated with delays in the openings of the crossings and with the opening of a Gaza-West Bank link, though they express understanding for Israel’s security concerns.

There is even sharper criticism of hints by Israel that it will stop voting in eastern Jerusalem if Hamas is included. Israeli officials say their plans are not finalized, but the Bush administration wants Israel to adhere to prior formulas, which allowed about 5,000 Jerusalem Palestinians to cast votes in post offices.

“We see no reason why the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government shouldn’t be able to come to some similar kind of accommodation for this round of voting,” McCormack said. “We are going to be working with the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government encouraging them to discuss this issue so that elections can move forward.”

Israeli officials have since retreated from those threats, and now say their plans for the election aren’t finalized.

Still, it’s Abbas’ failure to get a handle on events that most concerns the Americans. The State Department’s blunt talk came after two sharp congressional warnings to Abbas, delivered just before the holiday break, not to allow Hamas to run in elections.

Seventy-three senators signed a letter to President Bush expressing their disappointment in Abbas for allowing Hamas to run in the elections without renouncing terrorism. The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on a resolution decrying Hamas participation in the elections.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbied hard for the letter and the resolution, said the message was clear: Abbas needs to clean up Palestinian democracy if he wants to be taken seriously.

“Terrorists have no place in a democratic society,” AIPAC said in a statement. “Congress has only asked that P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas do precisely what democratic societies all over the world do in setting reasonable criteria for participation in elections.”

For Palestinians, the messages might seem contradictory: Changing the election rules to exclude Hamas — or persuading the group to renounce terrorism — would almost certainly take longer than the three weeks before Jan. 25.

Yet each message reflects widespread concern that Abbas is losing control of events.

“President Abbas himself has called for the Palestinian Authority to act with one authority, one law and one gun,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a sponsor of the House resolution, said in debate. “But actions speak louder than words, and this upcoming election is the test for him and for Palestinian democracy.”

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