JERUSALEM — Israeli officials said Sunday that they were prepared to remove some soldiers and military checkpoints from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to make it easier for voters to take part in Jan. 9 Palestinian Authority presidential elections.
Israel warned, though, that it would retain restrictions on Palestinian travel if it appeared likely that militants would use freer movement to attack Israelis.
"We will make certain to expedite the conduct of free elections, so everyone can vote freely," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "The last thing that is going to affect them [are] Israeli tank barrels or Israeli soldiers."
The logistics of the scheduled Palestinian election are expected to dominate a brief visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who will meet separately today with Israeli officials and Palestinian leaders.
Palestinian leaders want Powell to pressure Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement.
Powell told reporters en route to Jerusalem that he would make the point in his talks "that [President Bush] has made, that this is a great moment of opportunity for the Palestinian people."
"I've been urging both sides to do everything they can to make sure that this election comes off and that the maximum number of Palestinians get the opportunity to participate in the election," Powell said.
"Perhaps the things they do will in turn show the degree of cooperation that can spread into other areas," he said.
In preparation for Powell's visit, Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns met Sunday in the West Bank city of Ramallah with the top three Palestinian officials: Palestine Liberation Organization leader Mahmoud Abbas, interim Palestinian Authority President Rouhi Fatouh and Prime Minister Ahmed Korei.
"We all know that there are many challenges and obstacles on the road ahead. The U.S. is determined to do everything we can to help overcome them," Burns said after his meeting with Fatouh.
Israeli leaders have said it is in their national security interest to make sure the election to replace Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president produces a legitimate leader -- and possible negotiating partner. Israeli authorities also have signaled they will allow Palestinians living in Jerusalem to cast ballots, although no formal decision has been announced.
Powell's visit, coming after he announced plans to leave his government post, is aimed at reviving the diplomatic initiative known as the road map, which envisions a Palestinian state by the end of 2005.
That blueprint, sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations, stalled shortly after it was unveiled last year amid violence and failures by Israel and the Palestinians to fulfill key parts of the plan.
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov also plan visits to the Mideast in coming days.
After Arafat's death Nov. 11, Bush said there was a "great chance" to establish a Palestinian state and vowed to try to achieve that before leaving office in 2009.
Korei, the Palestinian prime minister, favors a timetable that preserves the peace plan's stated goal of Palestinian statehood by the end of next year.
Preparations for the January vote moved forward as a key leadership committee of Fatah, the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, met to begin deliberations on a nominee for the presidency.
Abbas, who was Arafat's longtime deputy in the PLO, was expected to be selected as the Fatah candidate during a meeting of the group's Central Committee on Sunday. That session was to continue today amid disagreements over how to proceed.
Some Palestinians who want jailed Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti to run for president said they might mount a challenge to Abbas within the PLO's larger Revolutionary Council, which has more young, reform-minded members.
Barghouti, serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison in connection with the deaths of five people, is popular among Palestinians. Associates said Sunday that he was still deciding whether to run, perhaps from behind bars.
Some Palestinians are expected to seek Powell's help in pushing for Barghouti's release.
Abbas, a longtime Arafat aide and former Palestinian prime minister, is respected in leadership circles but has little grass-roots support.
Gaining the Fatah nomination would make him the early front-runner and comfort Israeli and U.S. officials, who consider him a credible negotiating partner. Israel and the Bush administration refused to deal with Arafat, who died in a hospital near Paris.
Several other Palestinians -- including a political science professor, a former sports minister, a journalist and a billionaire businessman -- have said they are considering running.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Jerusalem and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.