JERUSALEM – Israel will allow international observers to monitor upcoming Palestinian presidential elections, fulfilling an important Palestinian demand, Israel's foreign minister said Wednesday.
Palestinian officials last week appealed for foreign monitors to ensure the Jan. 9 elections to replace Yasser Arafat (search) as Palestinian Authority (search) president are free and fair. The European Union said Monday it would send a mission to observe the election.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) said Wednesday that Israel would not stand in the way of such missions.
"If the international community will want to send observers, Israel will allow the entrance of observers ... to ensure that these elections are fair and the results will be acceptable, not only to the international community, but first and foremost to the Palestinian people," he told Army Radio.
Palestinians have also demanded Israel pull its troops out of Palestinian cities during the campaign and allow residents of east Jerusalem to vote in the poll.
Israel has said it would let residents of east Jerusalem — which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed — vote by absentee ballot, but will still go into Palestinian neighborhoods if security considerations demand it.
"The elections process will not be harmed if, on the outskirts of a certain town, soldiers are located. I think what is important is allowing freedom of movement, to allow freedom to vote for all the voters if they want to vote," Shalom said.
Israel sent troops back into Palestinian towns ceded to the Palestinians under interim peace accords after the latest round of Mideast violence erupted in 2000. Troops set up scores of roadblocks cutting off cities and towns, often confining hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to their home communities.
"Israel is willing to do almost everything," Shalom said. "I think its in our interest that there will be free and fair elections, and for this purpose we have to do everything possible to let them hold this vote, of course, as long as this doesn't damage our security."
Shalom spoke before meeting with British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, who was on a two-day visit to the region as part of a new round of diplomacy meant to restart peace efforts following Arafat's death.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon postponed a meeting with Straw on Wednesday over a sore throat he was suffering, his office said.
Sharon's doctors' ordered him to rest his voice and drink lots of liquids, forcing him to cancel his schedule for the rest of the day, the office said. The meeting with Straw could take place Thursday.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in the region Monday for meetings with Palestinian and Israeli officials, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with the two sides on Tuesday.
Palestinians have had only one general election, in 1996. Palestinians have said they could not carry out a campaign with the Israelis in control of the territory.
On Wednesday, the militant Hamas group strongly rejected any move to restart peace talks.
Hamas, which envisions an Islamic state in place of Israel, rejects any negotiations.
Negotiations "will never ensure the minimum rights or aspirations of the Palestinian people," Hamas said in a statement.