WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is preparing with European allies to help the Palestinian Authority organize January elections and improve its security forces to crack down on terrorism, US officials and diplomats said yesterday.
The immediate priority, they said, is getting funding, monitors, and technical assistance to the Palestinians for the Jan. 9 presidential elections to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat, who died last week.
President Bush is considering redirecting millions of dollars in US funding to nongovernmental organizations to help prepare for the elections and provide other support. As much as $75 million is in the pipeline for Palestinian programs, and a portion of that could be used for the elections, congressional aides said.
Bush could also waive existing congressional restrictions and provide US aid directly to the Palestinians.
The United States also is pressing Israel for steps that would make the elections easier to hold, such as pulling Israeli security forces back from certain Palestinian population centers, officials said.
Bush ''needs to get the army of Israel out and send civilian observers in order to see true, genuine, fair elections taking place," Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told CNN.
He urged the United States and the Europeans to send nongovernmental organizations and teams of election observers ''immediately to the West Bank and Gaza in order to help us."
The presence of Israeli forces, and whether Israel will allow Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem, could dominate talks in Washington today between Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Israel and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted yesterday as telling the weekly Israeli Cabinet meeting that he would not rule out voting by East Jerusalem Palestinians, the Associated Press reported.
Besides election preparations, plans being drawn up by the Bush administration and its European allies are expected to include a new assessment of how to help Palestinians' reconstruction and development. The cash-strapped Palestinian Authority could receive money from a World Bank trust fund -- and from some countries directly -- as changes are implemented, according to officials and documents.
Officials said the effort would be spearheaded through the Middle East mediation ''Quartet," which is made up of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. The group, which produced a faltering peace ''road map," could meet as early as Nov. 22-23, officials said.
Washington and its partners in Middle East peace efforts are considering asking the UN Security Council to back Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain said last week the plan will help jump-start negotiations on the so-called ''road map" for peace.
Blair said yesterday it would be ''premature at the moment" for Bush to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East, though he held out hope of convening an international conference.
Blair also told NBC's ''Meet the Press" that international help to build up Palestinian security was essential. ''Without that robust security infrastructure, you're not going to make progress," Blair said.
Blair said that he did not envision US troops working directly with the Palestinian Authority on security. He said those details would be worked out later.
The Quartet's latest draft ''action plan" -- a copy of which was obtained by Reuters -- calls for an oversight committee led by the United States to assist ''in restructuring and retraining of Palestinian security services" with help from Egypt.
''It's going to be difficult. There's a lot of negotiating to do," Blair said of efforts to revive the road map.