Disagreements with U.S. could delay Palestinian poll


U.S. and Palestinian leaders sharply disagree over the details of Palestinian elections planned in January, officials said Friday, jeopardizing the vote that Washington hopes will usher in a new Palestinian leadership.

The key stumbling block is whether the Palestinian parliament should choose a prime minister who could balance the power of Yasser Arafat, widely expected to be re-elected as Palestinian leader in a separate ballot.

The Palestinian Authority — in a report Friday to an international task force in Paris on Palestinian reform — said it would not agree to changes in the electoral system used by Palestinians in 1996 balloting that confirmed Arafat as leader.

U.S. President George W. Bush has called for widespread reforms inside the Palestinian Authority and new Palestinian leadership as prerequisites for a Palestinian state. Israel and the United States have accused Arafat of stoking the violence that for the past two years has torpedoed Mideast peace.

Despite Arafat’s popularity among Palestinians, U.S. officials are hoping the elections can contribute to the reform process and bring in new leaders.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said the United States made specific election proposals that have been rejected by Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in a meeting in Washington two weeks ago, urged the Palestinians to have their parliament choose a prime minister, separate from the presidency.

“We were shocked during the discussions that the American side is speaking about changing the law of elections,” Erakat said. “We told them that this is a purely Palestinian issue.”

A U.S. official contacted Friday refused to confirm the disagreements over the election process.

Raanan Gissin, adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, confirmed the United States proposed a parliament-chosen prime minister as a way of sidestepping Arafat.

“They (the Palestinians) rejected that,” Gissin said. “The election as proposed in its current state will only ensure that the same people and the same reign of terror will be reestablished.” The talks centered on proposals for financial transparency, administrative reform, elections, market reforms and other changes.