U.S., Israel try to boost Fatah before vote

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the United States scrambled yesterday to plan strategies in case of a Hamas victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections this week amid polls showing the militant Islamic faction running neck and neck with the governing Fatah party.

Fatah campaign manager Nabil Shaath expressed confidence that his party would win enough seats to continue running the Palestinian Authority and vowed that the new government would not include parties that oppose a U.S.-backed peace plan.

"We can't form a coalition with Hamas if it doesn't agree" to a peace program, Shaath said.

Shaath's optimism about a victory comes amid news that the U.S. and Israeli governments appear to have gone to some length to influence Wednesday's election in Fatah's favor. The two countries are worried that Hamas, classified as a terrorist organization by both governments but respected as a social service organization among Palestinians, could be the surprise winner.

In other developments, Israeli helicopters fired rockets at three Palestinian militants near the main cargo crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel. One of the men was killed, according to the Popular Resistance Committee militia in Gaza, which said in a statement that all three were members of its organization.

The attack comes as Israeli and Palestinian security forces went on heightened alert to stem any violence that could threaten the election.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that at the start of the Palestinian campaign this month, the U.S. Agency for International Development launched social service projects with a total cost of $2 million to bolster Fatah's public image, which is flagging after 10 years in power.

The Post quoted U.S. officials as saying that the Palestinian Authority, which is run by Fatah, and not the U.S. government should be credited for the projects, which included community computer clinics and a youth soccer tournament. USAID's logo never appeared alongside the projects, nor in a flurry of newspaper ads supporting Fatah that were reportedly paid for through a contract with the agency, contrary to USAID's mandate of publicizing the role of U.S. taxpayer dollars in funding its projects.

An official at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem confirmed that USAID has a $2 million budget to promote democracy in the Palestinian territories. The official, who spoke the on condition of anonymity, said the funds are allocated through the office of President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also the leader of Fatah. The official denied that the aid was being used to influence the election.

The Palestinian Central Election Commission did not immediately return calls seeking comment on whether such U.S. expenditures violate Palestinian campaign finance laws stipulating that no party can spend more than $1 million in the race. Laws also state that no party or individual candidate can accept financing from foreign sources.

In another apparent campaign move aimed at helping Fatah, Israel allowed Arabic television network Al-Jazeera to interview Marwan Barghouti, Fatah's top candidate, in his high-security Israeli jail cell.

Barghouti, who is serving consecutive life sentences for planning attacks in Israel and is the most popular Palestinian political figure, urged all Palestinians to vote Wednesday as a way to honor the thousands who have died fighting for an independent state.

Torn by internal disputes, Fatah, which once was the backbone of Palestinian politics in the West Bank and Gaza and has run the Palestinian Authority since 1996, has collapsed during this election.

An opinion poll released during the weekend showed Fatah with a 7-point lead over Hamas, while another put them in a statistical tie.

Hamas, an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, has temporarily given up its militant campaign this year and joined the political scene. Its popularity in the campaign is less about its militancy and more about its record of social work and reputation for honesty. Fatah, on the other hand, is considered corrupt by voters.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with security officials yesterday in Jerusalem to discuss a response if Hamas makes a strong showing in the election.

Abbas hopes that bringing Hamas and other militant groups into the political realm would reinforce his policy of continuing peace negotiations with Israel and give him a mandate to disarm the militias.

Shaath said Fatah could form a government with liberal and independent candidates who are running in individual races if his party's candidates do not receive a majority of votes. Polls show Fatah winning 35 percent to 42 percent of the vote.

Shaath did not rule out a coalition government with Hamas, but said the party would have to abide by Abbas' policy of ending the armed resistance to Israel's military occupation if it wants to join a future government.

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