The Palestinian Authority (PA) has asked Israel not to meddle in the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, and not to attempt to prevent the participation of Hamas, lest this serve only to strengthen the organization.

"Don't interfere with our elections," Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat told Vice Premier Shimon Peres at a meeting on Friday. "Leave it to us. Any intervention of yours only strengthens Hamas. You believe you are weakening it, but the result is the opposite."

Erekat said the elections will take place in January, in accordance with the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement from 1995, which established the political framework for the PA, and prohibited the participation of parties "if such candidates, parties, or coalitions commit or advocate racism or pursue the implementation of their aims by unlawful or nondemocratic means."

The Israeli position views the participation of Hamas in the election as a violation of the clause, because Hamas carries out terror attacks and its covenant calls explicitly for the destruction of Israel.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom have over the past weeks been conducting an international campaign to prevent Hamas participation in the elections for the PLC. Sharon has warned that if Hamas takes part in the elections, Israel will create difficulties for the holding of elections in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

At the same time, the PA is planning to hold its fourth round of elections for the local authorities on December 15. Over the weekend, the Palestinian Ministry of Local Government announced the upcoming round of elections in 44 local authorities, including the West Bank's large municipalities of Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus and Jenin. Apart from four small local authorities, the coming elections will not include the Gaza Strip, where there is broad support for Hamas.

A political source expressed his opinion over the weekend that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas would receive "significant reinforcement," in his meeting with U.S. President George Bush in Washington on Thursday. The U.S. has conveyed a series of messages to Israel over the week, about the importance it sees in strengthening Abbas.

Meanwhile, the PA Interior Ministry announced over the weekend that Russian officers had arrived to assist with the training of Palestinian security forces.