JERICHO, West Bank -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will run for re-election in January, a senior aide said Wednesday, despite a call by President Bush for a new Palestinian leadership.
It had been widely expected that Arafat would run, but the statement by Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath was immediately disputed by another senior official, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, who said it was premature to announce candidacies before details were worked out and as long as Israeli troops occupied most of the Palestinian cities in the West Bank.
"This is absurd, absurd -- talking about swimming before you have a pool or water," Abed Rabbo said. "I never heard this from the president."
Hours earlier, the Palestinians announced that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in mid-January and unveiled plans to overhaul Palestinian financial and security institutions. The announcements came two days after Bush demanded reforms and called for a new Palestinian leadership that was "not compromised by terror." The changes, Bush said, were necessary before a Palestinian state could be established.
Asked whether Arafat would run again, Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said: "Yes, absolutely." He said Arafat had told him directly.
Shaath, speaking by telephone from Egypt, said he expected other candidates to come forward once details of the election process were worked out. To date, no serious challenger to the longtime Palestinian leader has emerged.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat, who announced the coming elections, said the first Palestinian municipal elections would be held in March and that the Palestinian finance, judicial and security branches would undergo drastic improvements. "Competent judges," he said, would be appointed by the end of September.
"President Arafat officially declares today that the election of the president of the Palestinian Authority and the election of the Palestinian legislative council will be held in January 2003," Erekat said. Palestinian Parliament Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman said the elections likely would be on Jan. 10 or 11.
Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel wanted to see concrete evidence of a clampdown on terror attacks before judging the effectiveness of Palestinian reforms. "This is how it will be tested -- with action. In the meantime, all we have is words," Gissin said.
Israeli forces, meanwhile, maintained their grip on West Bank towns, confining at least 700,000 Palestinians to their homes as arrests and searches were being carried out. The army has moved into seven of the eight major West Bank towns and cities since back-to-back suicide bombings killed 26 Israelis last week in Jerusalem.
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