After their meeting with Powell, Israeli officials pledged to improve the “freedom of movement” of Palestinians, so they may vote on Jan. 9 for a new president.
“We’ll do everything we can in order to remove any obstacles that they might face in their preparations to have their elections,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.
Palestinian officials dismissed the pledge and said they would wait and see if Israel took concrete steps such as pulling back their forces.
“We do not trust these Israeli declarations,” senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters.
Despite the skeptical public comments, Powell told reporters he was pleased with the amount of collaboration ahead of the vote.
“I’m pleased with the level of coordination and cooperation that exists between the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority to make sure that those elections can be held,” Powell said outside an elections district office in Jericho.
The secretary said his visit, in addition to helping bolster the upcoming election, was an effort to reaffirm “President Bush’s determination to take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself in the aftermath of Chairman Arafat’s death.”
Powell added he had heard a new spirit of cooperation from both Israel and the Palestinian leadership.
“I sense an understanding that an opportunity has presented itself and if both sides work together to make sure that the Palestinians have a successful election on the 9th of January, and to that election bestow the legitimacy of the electorate on a new president, then we have some opportunities to move even more aggressively in the months after that toward the disengagement from Gaza,” Powell told reporters, according to a transcript made available by the State Department. “So, I believe there is a new attitude and we must take advantage of this new attitude.”
“We got promises, no more,” Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, told The New York Times, adding that Powell “was positive in his responses to our demands and promised to support us and help us in achieving what we asked for.”
The visit came as the leading Palestinian faction, Fatah, announced it would support former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, as its candidate in the January election.
“We decided … to have brother Abu Mazen as the candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority,” Intisar al-Wazir, a Fatah Central Committee member, told Reuters.
The 69-year-old Abbas, Arafat’s longtime deputy as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has already been named head of the PLO.
Although Abbas appears the odds-on favorite in January’s vote, the election has been complicated by a possible candidate now sitting in an Israeli prison.
Marwan Barghouti, a 45-year-old charismatic West Bank leader of the same Fatah movement that selected Abbas, is currently serving five life sentences plus an additional 40 years for his role in suicide attacks that killed five Israelis.
Barghouti, who as a Palestinian legislator often criticized Arafat’s rule and corruption in the PA, has not said for certain whether he will stand for election.
“If he feels it’s in the interest of his people for him to serve as president, he won’t hesitate,” Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, told The New York Times on Thursday.
But even as a possible candidate, Powell admitted the popular Barghouti may pose unforeseen challenges.
“The Barghouti problem is a complex one. I am not sure what he is planning to do, but I think we will just have to wait and see,” Powell said, adding “this is something that the Palestinians will have to work out among themselves, who they offer for candidacy.”