Palestinian Legislators Set Sights on New Elections ; Lawmakers Hope to Hold Municipal Elections in Some Cities in the Next Two Months

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This city is the meeting place for the Palestinian legislative council whose members were elected to four-year terms - and stayed more than seven. Palestinian cities like this one have had municipal elections - but not since 1976.

On a busy street corner, a struggling merchant says the job of Palestinian officials is "to steal the people's money" and drive fancy cars.

A key facet of the Bush administration's road map for returning to Middle East peacemaking has been a demand that the Palestinians undertake democratic reforms.

But the road map's promise to call elections for the 3.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has been kept on hold - a delay for which many Palestinians blame the US as much as Israel. Israel said earlier this week that it intended to withdraw its forces from four cities in the West Bank, but disagreements over negotiations, and a deterioration in the cease-fire have put those plans on hold.

Independent of the ups and downs in the peace process, which collapsed three years ago this September, Palestinian legislators are working to pass an election law and are planning to hold municipal elections in some cities in the next two months.

To many here, calling new elections is a crucial step toward increasing the legitimacy of Palestinian leaders in the eyes of the public, and a major step toward painting a picture of things to come in more democratic colors.

Israel and the US have said they support elections. But many Palestinians say they're frustrated that international backing for the elections has grown more muted since the road map's introduction last year.

"The Americans prevented the elections because the polls showed that [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat will win again," says Mohammed Hourani, a member of the Palestinian legislative council involved in drafting a new elections law. Palestinians say they were keen to set a date but were then put off.

"The Americans asked ... to delay it, until they finished the war in Iraq. We have met many European politicians who said elections are an important step in ... the development of peace, and the US succeeded in stopping them and saying elections must occur at the end of the first part of the road map, and to do that, Israelis must withdraw."

That looks likelier now than it has in months. Palestinians say there can be no elections until Israel pulls out of the areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip it reoccupied or blocked off after an ongoing barrage of suicide attacks against Israelis last year. They argue that road closures, incursions, and the construction of a security wall in the West Bank are also hindering the potential to implementation of the road map.

Israel, for its part, says that the Palestinian Authority is still failing to fight terrorism by cracking down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Muslim fundamentalist groups which, Israeli officials say, are using the cease-fire as a time to rearm and plan new attacks. …

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