Israel's cabinet is expected to approve a proposal that will allow East Jerusalem Arabs to vote in Palestinian legislative elections on January 25. Earlier there were conflicting reports from Israeli officials as to whether East Jerusalem residents would be allowed to vote. The issue has emerged as the first serious policy dispute within Israel's cabinet since Ariel Sharon suffered his stroke one week ago.
Israel's cabinet is expected to issue a definitive decision about the voting on Sunday.
In December, Israeli officials said they would bar East Jerusalem Arabs from voting because of the participation of the Islamic militant group Hamas in the elections.
On Tuesday, Israel's Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would allow the voting to go ahead under procedures that allowed East Jerusalem Arabs to vote in the past. But he was immediately contradicted by Israel's Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom who told a television interviewer the voting would not take place.
"First it is against the agreements signed with the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords where it is written very clearly that no organization that calls for the destruction of Israel will be allowed to participate," Mr. Shalom said.
Shalom belongs to the conservative Likud Party and Mofaz is a member of the centrist Kadima Party that Ariel Sharon founded last year after breaking away from the Likud Party.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late Tuesday that Israel will allow the East Jerusalem voting to go ahead, but only if groups designated as terrorist organizations, like Hamas are barred from the ballot. Israel, the United States, and the European Union have classified Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Two senior U.S. envoys, White House Middle East policy chief Elliot Abrams, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch are in the region holding talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on the election issue.
Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Israel never intended for East Jerusalem residents not to be allowed to vote, but Israel will not stand by and grant legitimacy to a group like Hamas.
"No one in Israel said they would not be allowed to vote," he noted. "We are talking about modalities of the electoral process. No one on the Israeli side wanted to be the excuse that people would give to cancel the Palestinian elections. So we have the given the go-ahead to arrangements that have been in place in the past. We are disappointed that groups like the Palestinian Authority are giving Hamas this legitimacy and we urge them to reconsider their choice."
The threat to bar East Jerusalem residents from voting had turned into a major obstacle to holding the elections. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had said if the issue were not resolved he did not believe the vote would take place.
Israeli newspapers quote government sources as saying if Hamas candidates campaign in East Jerusalem they will be immediately arrested. A Hamas spokesman says Hamas activists will still be able to campaign.
There are at least five Hamas candidates running on two voters lists in East Jerusalem. One list is for district candidates and the other for national candidates throughout the Palestinian territories.
Under the Oslo Peace Accords, Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are not given the right to vote in Palestinian elections. But Israeli officials have made exceptions in the past - most notably in last January's Palestinian presidential election, when East Jerusalem residents were allowed to vote in Israeli post offices - a procedure that looks increasingly likely to be repeated on January 25.