Olmert, in first test as acting prime minister, approves Palestinian voting in Jerusalem
JERUSALEM – Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced his first major test on Sunday when he led his Cabinet in a unanimous decision to let Palestinians vote in Jerusalem later this month, defusing a crisis that threatened to derail the parliamentary elections.The move came hours before doctors performed a tracheotomy on Ariel Sharon to help wean him off a respirator 11 days after he suffered a stroke, Hadassah Hospital said in a statement. On Saturday night, the 77-year-old leader was taken off the last of the sedatives that kept him in a medically induced coma, the hospital said. But he remained unconscious.Attorney General Meni Mazuz also directed Olmert on Sunday to continue serving as acting prime minister. Olmert, seen as Sharon’s likely heir, has been running the government since the prime minister’s Jan. 4 stroke.In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian mother and her armed 20-year-old son in what appeared to be a mix-up sparked by a village feud, residents said.Although Sharon is not expected to resume his official duties, the attorney general sidestepped an irreversible decision to declare him permanently incapacitated and instruct the Cabinet to choose a successor. Instead, he told Olmert to remain acting premier, presumably until Israel’s March 28 elections, Israeli officials said.The ministers from the hard-line Likud Party resigned from the Cabinet effective this week, preferring to run against Sharon’s new, centrist Kadima Party from the opposition. With only Kadima ministers remaining, the Cabinet voted unanimously to allow Jerusalem Arabs to vote in the city during the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary elections.Both Israel and the Palestinians want Jerusalem as their capital, creating conflict over any issue seen as strengthening either side’s claim to the city.Israel had threatened to bar voting in east Jerusalem because candidates from the Islamic militant group Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction, are running. Palestinians threatened to cancel the election if Israel banned Jerusalem voting.The Cabinet decision – which came in the wake of U.S. pressure – said the voting could proceed as long as armed groups were not on the ballot. The vote would be held under a compromise used in previous elections that allowed Jerusalem Arabs to cast absentee ballots in post offices.”I welcome this decision,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.However, in a phone conversation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas complained about Israel’s restrictions.”All candidates should have freedom of movement, freedom to campaign,” he said, according to his office.Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri termed the decision “unacceptable,” but said it would not delay the elections. “We don’t need Israeli permission to participate in the elections,” he said.Shortly after the Cabinet vote, police scuffled with Hamas members in Jerusalem’s Old City and raided a Hamas office in east Jerusalem that Israel believed was being used for election-related activities. Police detained six people, including three held on suspicion of illegal campaigning, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. Mohammed Abu Teir, No. 2 on the national Hamas slate, was among those detained, relatives said.”Israel police will continue to close down all Hamas activity in east Jerusalem related to the upcoming election,” Rosenfeld said.Hamas is expected to make a strong showing in the election, appealing to Palestinians angry at the ruling Fatah Party’s corruption and inability to maintain order in Palestinian areas.In the West Bank village of Rojib near Nablus, soldiers who apparently thought they had come across a militant hide-out fired at a house. Residents said the shots killed 20-year-old Fawzi Dwekat and his 50-year-old mother. The son was standing guard with a rifle after arson attacks on his family’s cars.Residents said soldiers shot first, and Dwekat returned fire. But the military said the army patrol was shot at first and returned fire.A violent standoff between Israeli police and Jewish settlers in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron presented another challenge for Olmert. He denounced what he called the “unbridled” behavior of the rioting settlers and said he had instructed authorities to “act strongly to stop such behavior.”About 500 settlers live among 170,000 Palestinians in Hebron.In recent days, settlers angry at orders to evict eight families living in an empty Palestinian market rampaged through the city, torching Palestinian shops, stoning Palestinian homes and confronting Israeli police. Eight people were arrested on Sunday in connection with the rioting, police said.