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Despite American objections, the Palestinian Authority cabinet yesterday decided to press on with general elections on January 15, 2003, an official statement said. The date was chosen as part of a reform package accepted by the PA under U.S.-European pressure in June. Israel would permit a special session of the Palestinian parliament to meet and approve elections and reforms, the Foreign Ministry said yesterday.

The Palestinian cabinet said it would ask Israel to allow the parliament to convene in special session. That requires Israeli permission because of travel restrictions imposed on the Palestinians during the current conflict.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said Palestinians had raised the issue in talks with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and "Israel would respond favorably to such a request once it is put forward."

The PA decision yesterday signals to the international donor countries, particularly the Europeans, that it expects them to demand that Israel leave Area A territories and cancel the closures that will make it difficult to hold an election campaign and the voting itself.

U.S. reservations

U.S. officials have broadly hinted in recent weeks that they have reservations about the plans for elections in January. During a meeting of the international task force on PA reforms in Paris last week, they said that while they are not opposed to elections, they think that first there has to be progress in the security and institutional reforms in the PA.

PA sources say they think the U.S. does not want to see elections that re-elect PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, and the Americans won't press Israel to lift the closures and sieges of Palestinian cities.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield is expected to discuss the election issue and the prospects of having a prime minister in the Palestinian Authority, to take operational control of the PA from Arafat.

Palestinian ministers, who spoke with the U.S. administration in Washington this month on reforms, insist any move on a prime minister be independent of U.S. pressure. "After having elections and declaring an independent state, the new parliament will be discussing a number of decisions including the post of prime minister and his responsibilities," Arafat's top adviser Nabil Abu Radainah said.

"These are part of the reforms that the Palestinian Authority pledged to carry out. But the main obstacle for implementing these reforms is the occupation."

A prime minister

Earlier this month Arafat discussed the issue of a prime minister with members of his Fatah movement's central committee in Ramallah after Palestinian delegates to the talks with U.S. officials conveyed the American administration's wish for it. "The issue was one of those discussed at the meeting and all rejected the American intervention," said committee member Sakher Habbash. "When we have a state, then we can think of it."

Diplomatic sources said Satterfield's agenda included discussion of reforms in security and political fields, including a possible Palestinian prime minister. He is expected to hold separate talks with Palestinian and Israeli officials.

Abdallah al-Hurani, an official of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), said the United States was willing to see someone taking power away from Arafat who "would be more likely to compromise to their terms". Abdel-Karim Abu Salah, the Palestinian Legislative Council's legal committee leader, said the idea of having a prime minister was first recommended by his committee during its writing of a 1996 temporary constitution, which Arafat ratified this year.

"The condition is that no one has the power to impose his desire on us or to impose characters. All we do must be measured in accordance with internal interest," said Abu Salah. "What was originally a Palestinian demand can not now be turned into a sword on our necks."

The PA cabinet was briefed yesterday on new U.S. demands for changes in the Palestinian electoral system that are widely seen as a means of sidelining Yasser Arafat.

The U.S. wants the Palestinians to hold parliamentary elections first, have parliament choose a prime minister, and only then prepare for a presidential vote, said a senior Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib, who attended the Paris meeting, said European officials also favored delaying elections until reforms in the Palestinian security services were completed. The European delegates are not satisfied with reforms so far and want more than personnel changes, Khatib said.

Palestinian general elections were held in January 1996, as part of interim peace accords. At the time, Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem also participated in the vote.

The national unity government opposes participation of east Jerusalem residents in Palestinian elections, arguing that such a step would undermine Israel's claims to sovereignty over all of the city.

On September 9, the Palestinian Legislative Council is set to convene in Ramallah to discuss the new cabinet's plan and vote confidence in it. Arafat is expected to deliver a speech at the session.