Sharon promises to help Palestinians with their election

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The Independent Online

Israeli and Palestinian officials are expected to hold low-key but direct talks on the mechanics of the January election to succeed Yasser Arafat after a promise to Washington by Ariel Sharon that he will do everything he can to facilitate the poll.

Israeli and Palestinian officials are expected to hold low-key but direct talks on the mechanics of the January election to succeed Yasser Arafat after a promise to Washington by Ariel Sharon that he will do everything he can to facilitate the poll.

The Israeli Prime Minister, who made his pledge to the outgoing US Secretary of State yesterday, told ministerial colleagues that he wants measures to ensure the elections go smoothly - including provisions for the 200,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote and a probable pull-back of forces from West Bank cities.

General Colin Powell, who met Palestinian leaders here after seeing Mr Sharon in Jerusalem, indicated that Israel was contemplating negotiations with them to co-ordinate its planned withdrawal from Gaza once a president is elected.

But the general was unable to give Palestinian leaders grounds for hope that President George Bush's self-proclaimed new focus on the conflict has meant that the goal in the internationally agreed "road-map", of a Palestinian state was achievable by the end of 2005.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, said after the meeting that it had been "very positive" and "an important part of a very active process". But he acknowledged that the transitional leadership had received "no assurances, no guarantees", on detailed operation of the road-map from the Secretary of State. In Jerusalem, General Powell told Mr Sharon that Mr Bush wanted "to move forward on the path of peace, to take advantage of the new opportunities that are before us".

He said later that Israel and the Palestinians must return to what he said were their commitments to the road-map, which also requires Palestinians to dismantle violent factions and for Israel to freeze settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza. But pressed here for a timetable for the creation of the state, he said: "It won't be determined by picking a date, but by ... action on the ground."

Instead his talks, particularly with Mr Sharon and Sylvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, focused on the planned presidential election - which the EU yesterday said would be monitored by a mission of MEPs headed by the former French prime minister Michel Rocard.

A senior Israeli official said that while Mr Sharon would not meet demands, reiterated by Palestinian ministers yesterday, for a full withdrawal of Israeli forces during the elections to positions they held before the present uprising began in 2000, Mr Sharon would be "very forthcoming" on a redeployment from inside West Bank cities to improve the atmosphere of the poll. Mr Sharon is also said by officials to have been dismissive of far-right objections to voting by East Jerusalem residents.

The issue is sensitive because of the Israeli claim, reiterated by Mr Shalom in recent days, to the whole of Jerusalem as the "sovereign" capital of the Jewish state. Palestinians want Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state. Mr Sharon was said by one senior official to have told colleagues that if East Jerusalem Palestinians were able to go to Ramallah to vote, they should also be allowed to vote in Jerusalem as they were - albeit under heavy restrictions - in the last elections in 1996. He has also pointed out that if 100,000 Israelis voted in the US elections, there can be no objections to Jerusalemites voting in the coming poll.

General Powell was unable yet to commit to a planned $20m (£11m) aid package to assist the financially struggling Palestinian Authority with the elections because of right-wing Congressional opposition. But the general praised the orderliness of the Palestinian transition process in the aftermath of President Arafat's death and said it was evidence the new leadership should receive help.

Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, said they had pressed General Powell on whether the plan to disengage from Gaza was "a new bypass road to kill the road-map off or could be incorporated in the road-map". The cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians had also pressed General Powell to push Israel for the release from jail of the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and other prisoners. "I think that he took note of what we said."

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